Having not seen the stage production of The Woman in Black before, I am not ashamed to confess that I entered the theatre with great expectations. For those who don’t know, the play continues Arthur Kipps’ quest to lay his experiences at Eel Marsh House to rest. The original book, by Susan Hill, had Kipps writing his tale following an outburst at his family for calling upon him to recite a ghost story, and the play continues this by having the elderly gentlemen call upon the services of an actor in order to help learn to recite his story. Evidently the final word of the book, ‘enough’, was a futile effort by Arthur Kipps to put his past behind him.
The play continues to tell the audience the story of The Woman in Black using a mere two actors. This is indeed an impressive feat, as Hill’s original work featured over a dozen characters. Therefore, the elderly Kipps, here played by David Acton, takes on the supporting roles of Samuel Daily, Mr Jerome, Keckwick, and Mr Bentley, and the hired actor, played by Matthew Spencer, evokes the younger Kipps.
As the play began, I must admit that my aforementioned expectations were let down. It started slowly, with the elderly Kipps unconvincingly bumbling along with what I felt was inappropriate humour. It was pointed out to me that Kipps isn’t meant to be an actor and so would not act well. But, the subsequent skill with which Acton wielded the multiple characters which he had to represent, acted as a direct contradiction to how we are led to expect Kipps to be.
Having said this, once the audience was finally allowed to experience the story that they had come to see, it was fantastic. Despite having to play multiple roles, David Acton was able to portray a constant underlying fear, perfectly capturing what I imagined Arthur Kipps to be feeling at the reliving of his terrifying past. This was perfectly encapsulated during the confrontation between Arthur and Mr Jerome, during which the story breaks for the character’s elderly counterpart to breakdown, cursing his youthful disbelief. Matthew Spencer wielded his role with equal verve, expressing an increasing unease as he himself began to appreciate the horror of his companion’s days at Eel Marsh.
In fact, the true brilliance of this performance was the deep seated unease that filled a watcher as the play progressed. Achieved brilliantly through the use of lighting at Mrs Drablow’s funeral, where a stark cross was emblazoned above the action; and the use of sound both with the disembodied voices of the vicar, and of the desperate Jeanette Humfrye chilling the audience. The iconic rocking of the nursery room chair, repeated at various points throughout the second act, filled the room with a ‘desperate, yearning malevolence’, forcing several audience members to scream when the tension was broken.
In short, once this production found its feet, it was a triumph. The Woman in Black is one of the greatest, and most chilling ghost stories ever told, and in this retelling the essence of Hill’s original tale has been captured utterly.
The Woman in Black is being performed at Norwich Theatre Royal April 18-22