“It must be told. I cannot carry the burden any longer. It must be told.” This chilling statement from Arthur Kipps, who has lived in terror during his adult life after the events he witnessed in Eel Marsh House, perfectly sets the tone of the play. Kipps, an elderly gentleman who was previously a solicitor with business at Eel Marsh House, approaches a young unnamed actor to perform his terrifying story on stage as a warning for others about the eerie Woman in Black. The juxtaposition of the young energetic wise-cracking actor and the frail haunted monotonous Kipps provides much of the comedy in what is otherwise a dark tale of human tragedy.
Essentially, The Woman in Black is a play within a play as the two team up to retell Kipps’ narrative with the young actor portraying a younger more carefree Kipps whilst the real Arthur Kipps, albeit begrudgingly, plays every other character. This minimalistic style of theatre also extends to props and locations as the stage is transformed only slightly to recreate all manner of things from the treacherous marsh to even a pony and trap with just a box and the “audience’s imagination”. The production proves you do not need a Hollywood budget of £15 million and an ex-Harry Potter actor to provide an entertaining and tense production of The Woman in Black. Whilst the 2012 film adaptation does deliver the typical horror movie clichéd jump out of your seat moments, the play at Norwich Theatre Royal is a more intelligent creation where tension is produced through agonisingly tense moments, and we are only treated to glimpses of the infamous Woman. The first such flash of the Woman in Black is in the church dressed in all black and with a veil over her disfigured face, again the mystery and suspense revolving around what the audience cannot see.
The play’s focus is predominately on the relationship between the two characters and how it evolves throughout, particularly Kipps, as his confidence is boosted and subsequently he discovers he has a knack for acting out his life story. The moments when Kipps and the actor are not acting out the play are the heart warming and tender scenes which give the audience a break from the intense recreation of Kipps’ experiences. One cannot help completely forgetting that the action unfolding on stage is being acted out by the young actor and the real Kipps who in turn are played by the enchanting Matt Connor and extremely gifted Malcolm James.
All elements of The Woman in Black combine to create a ghoulish tale that is sure to leave the audience thinking about it; from the fog of the marsh which invades the audience, leaving many members audibly coughing, to the blood curdling scream of the Woman which echoes around the theatre, keeping the audience constantly on edge. The slow creaking of the rocking chair in the empty house is a stand out moment which had audience members on the edge of their chairs as Kipps investigates, a scene fuelled on tension as the only noise is the eerie creaking of the floorboards whilst the audience wait with baited breath.
For those who remain sceptical if there are still plays that can make a 21st century audience have nightmares they clearly have not seen The Woman in Black, a masterpiece of suspense.