“The Woman in Black,” Fortune Theatre, July 19
In a horror movie, surprises usually involve serial killers and an axe. Since it shares the genre of horror, theatregoers may expect “The Woman in Black”—a play based on Susan Hill’s eerie novel by the same name—to provide a similar experience. While there are plenty of suspenseful and terrifying moments of the production, Stephen Mallatrat’s adaptation of the novel shown at the Fortune Theatre in London’s West End thrills audiences with a different set of surprises: moments of unexpected humour, a versatile two-actor cast, the use of a simple yet dynamic set, and a gripping storyline featuring an unexpected ending. Under the direction of Robin Herford, this production gives a captivating new form to an often gory, cliché genre, leaving the audience impressed with a lesson in imaginative theatre work.
The production is set up as a play-within-a-play, where a lawyer named Arthur Kipps, haunted by a ghost story from his past, hires an Actor to help turn the experience into a piece of theatre and thus, by sharing it with an audience, rid himself of the cursed tale rattling in his brain. With the lawyer’s written manuscript in hand, the Actor takes over the role of Mr Kipps himself, while the real Mr Kipps plays the other characters from his own story. The story from Kipps’ past revolves around a deceased widow named Mrs Drablow, whose estate he is sent to sort out; at the estate, he experiences ghostly sightings of a mysterious Woman in Black in both the mansion and surrounding marshes, and realizes the townspeople have seen her before. The two men act out the manuscript, creating a dynamic plot where Mr Kipps and the Actor switch between different characters, returning back to their original selves as they work out the retelling of the haunting story. This breaks down the wall between the actors and those seated in the theatre, inviting the audience to experience Mr Kipps’ journey as the Actor does. The small stage in the Fortune Theatre works in favour of this invitation, making the audience feel included in the unfolding series of events.
The initial interaction between the two solitary cast members of the play takes the audience off-guard: the Actor runs through the audience to the stage and playfully berates Mr Kipps’ non-existent oratory skills as he struggles through the first few sentences of his manuscript. The humour offers a relaxed beginning to the thriller, loosening up the audience and creating a contrast to the dark ending. As the play continues from this point, the Actor takes over the role of the younger Mr Kipps, becoming more entrenched in the character and his experiences with the Woman in Black. The Actor, played by Malcolm Connor, experiences the ghost story first-hand, pulling the audience with him in his fear and experience of terror. Connor plays young Kipps with confidence, sureness, and an air of deep thoughtfulness in monologue. His moments of terror are tempered with moments of perfect comedic timing and delivery, as the Actor humanizes the stoic Mr Kipps and illustrates the emotionally scarring journey that created the haunted old man who came to him with the manuscript.
As the other half of the two-man cast, Malcolm Jones is perfectly suited to play aged Mr Kipps; aside from his fittingly grey hair and lanky appearance, which create the well-worn look of old Mr Kipps, Jones captures the essence of the haunted lawyer with a quiet, nervous, and tortured energy. However, Jones true talent is revealed through character study; due to the nature of the play, Jones’ challenge is to portray a character acting as other characters. This requires convincing the audience of his multiple personalities, and Jones carries it out expertly, switching body language, accents, and facial expressions with each new character’s outfit donned onstage. The transformation is seamless as Jones switches between tortured old Mr Kipps to the antsy Mr Jerome to the reclusive coach driver Keckwick to the snarky landowner Sam Daily, creating the illusion of a large cast in the audience’s mind.
This illusion is part of the magic of the play, a magic created by capturing and controlling the audience’s imagination. The actors convince the audience to imagine the scenery and larger world of the play; the set itself is glaringly simple, orchestrated by set designer Michael Holt without a wasted object or space. The stage holds a wooden box, chairs, door, clothes rack, and gauze curtain concealing the second half of the stage. The wooden box is almost a character in itself, becoming a table, chest of papers, bed, and carriage; as it is used by the two men in various capacities, the audience believes the transformation just as the actors do. In addition, because of the talented acting and staging, the audience sees in their mind’s eye the non-existent elements of the play: the surrounding marshes, the dog Spider given to Kipps, the sinking quicksand, and the grey mansion.
As the play becomes darker in tone, darkness itself—the absence of light—is used to create a spooky dimensionality, and the choice moments and areas of illumination created by light designer Kevin Sleep control the audience’s gaze within the small space. This especially heightens moments where the key components of the Woman’s haunting story are revealed, such as the illumination of the locked door in Mrs Drablow’s mansion, a spotlight detailing the terrified face of the Actor or Mr Kipps in monologue, or a soft glow revealing the dark form of the Woman herself. The set and lighting design work together in the use of the gauze curtain, which conceals the back of the stage, and when illuminated reveals the changing scene behind: the cemetery on the Drablow estate, a boy’s bedroom, or the halls of the haunted mansion.
In addition to the set and lighting, the sound orchestrated by Gareth Owen adds to the world forming in the audience’s mind. Sound effects like a bustling street or the clop-clop of a horse-drawn carriage help convince the audience that the events are taking place, though no horse or pavement appears. Timed perfectly, the moments of highest terror are preceded by a mysterious thumping sound, and the “jump out of your seat” moments are punctuated by a child’s piercing scream, causing members of the audience to cover their ears. The use of silence also terrifies the audience, as whenever sounds and words cease, their expectation of the Woman increases.
Along with a haunting ending and a great attachment to both Mr Kipps and the Actor, many images stay with the audience as they leave the play. A hand protruding from the fog, the gaunt face of the illuminated Woman, a ghostly rocking chair, a slowly moving black figure; while no gruesome axes are involved, “The Woman in Black” leaves the audience with a beautifully-formed, haunted world, making this production a stand-out piece in London’s West End that no theatregoer is likely to forget.