Sitting in Norwich’s Theatre Royal it was possible to count off the horror cliches one by one: Gothic mansion, fog, wind, isolated setting, creepy back story involving dead children, one innocent man alone, his only light a bedside lamp. All present and accounted for.
Athony Eden as the Actor. Photo: Press.
The Woman in Black, Stephen Mallatratt’s world-renowned play based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name, is for many, the ultimate ghost story. For all its cliches and its incredibly long and unbroken21-year run, the play is still fresh. This is largely due to the way in which Mallatratt approached this much exploited genre – the play relies heavily upon the audience’s imagination as a fuel for their own fear. It is about the man walking through the creepy house, and not about the creepy house itself.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the play never really took off for me. To say that Anthony Eden played his role as the Actor badly would be unfair, it wasn’t as simple as that. He played him with great comic timing and warmth in the opening of the play, where he has to coax curmudgeonly Arthur Kipps, played by Julian Forsyth, into becoming the thespian he never knew he could be.
However, as the play progresses and the Actor takes on the role of portraying Kipps, he seems to falter. The problem was that the audience was too aware that they were watching an actor playing the Actor giving a performance, rather than Eden as an actor giving a performance. His gesturing and intonation were too waxy – when he described his family Christmas it seemed as if he was describing a scene from a catalogue.His camp, pantomime-like performance would have appealed to an audience of children, but this is most definitely not a children’s play.
Eden aside, the play did boast more than a few genuine clammy-palm moments of genuine fear. Audrone Koc had been transformed into the ghost of the woman in black, complete with pale wasted face, and was terrifying each time she appeared and promptly disappeared.
As mentioned, this play relies heavily on the imagination of the audience, with the woman in black only appearing for around thirty seconds of the plays’ two hour running time. Forsyth was excellent as Kipps and the subsequent characters that Kipps had to portray, giving a performance that was as emotionally strong as it was comic.