Ambassador Theatre Group Present
Photo by Pascal Moliere
Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill
Directed by Robin Hereford
It’s no wonder that Stephen Mallatratt was tempted to forge Susan Hill’s terrifying novel into a theatrical performance - its dramatic tension and eerie suspense beg for live performance. The wonder comes however in how it has managed to succeed on stage, in forty-one countries for twenty-one years, despite being an unembellished, straight spoken two-hander.
The power of The Woman in Black lies always in imagination, and the show gracefully introduces the audience to the potential of this tool rather meta-theatrically via the words of Orlando Wells’ ‘The Actor’ in the opening scenes. As he convinces Michael Mears’ jittery Arthur Kipps to turn the latter’s written story into a theatrical production, we catch a glimpse of how Mallatratt might have approached Susan Hill, and the imagination it might have taken to picture the very visual plot on a near empty stage.
Ingeniously, Mallatratt opens the play with rather farcical ‘comic relief’, warming the audience to the suggestion to follow, and knowing that any attempt to lighten the mood later on will disrupt the audience’s absorbed imagination. Throughout Kipps’s pathetic attempts to act, The Actor teases him, imploring the audience to share in the comedy of Kipps’ failure. But, as Kipps puts on Bentley’s glasses and sucks his pipe, his acting becomes magnetic, and the power of the story begins to take hold. The beauty of this device is two - fold. Not only does it catalyse the audience to use their imagination, but it proves the power of theatre to create worlds. As ‘The Actor’ proclaims in the first scene, there’s no need to have a real pony and trap, you just have to act like there’s one there. This show is like a lesson in using empty spaces to bring stories to life, except that instead of a two hour lecture, we get a two hour thriller.
Despite the strength of the original story, The Woman In Black is an immensely fragile play to produce, and one which relies wholly on the atmosphere the actors and audience create. It’s all or nothing - if you don’t believe in the ghost, the show becomes embarrassingly farcical, if you do believe - well, the heart never stops pounding. It’s all about belief, and from the moment Michael Mears steps on stage we absorb his fear. It’s an entertaining juxtaposition: The Actor wants to make the story into a show, and to therefore add engaging drama; Kipps wants his story to be told, but avoid any replication of the horrors he had to encounter.
Yet all of this promise would crumble without precision acting. Orlando Wells creates a whole world with his words, carving a landscape, building a house, and even bearing a dog. But this world would be dry without the characters which inhabit it, and Michael Mears’ Jerome, Keckwick and Samuel Daily are the finest ensemble creations around. Mears’ ‘development’ in his acting skills is at first heart-warming, as he plays out his old boss Bentley and the sniffling clerk, but soon becomes bone-chilling when the action reaches the eerie Eel Marsh House.
The directorial masterstroke is the positioning and timing of the horrifying woman in black. Her first appearance, gliding down the aisle beside you, gives the necessary fright, but it is the wait after the first couple of viewings which is energising. Once the potential has been set, you’re forever glancing over your shoulder into the depths of the theatre, fearing the next appearance. The fact that she is only fully revealed in her monstrous glory in the final scene gives the audience time to believe in her – by the time she takes main stage, her slightly cartoonish mask and make-up are as real as the piercing screams shrilling from the seats behind.
Michael Holt’s set is an archetype, a skeleton key which opens the potential for any type of design. At once minimal and grand, the focus switches between an empty stage, occupied by nothing more than a man pretending to drag a drowning dog from a foggy marsh, to a expensively crafted pre-war nursery complete with toys, a bed and of course, the famous rocking chair. The set is like a creeping game of pass the parcel – different elements are revealed in a pattern which draws the audience further and further into the performance, both metaphorically through engagement, and physically by revealing more and more downstage wonder. The woman in black’s final ascension of the gloomy veiled staircase is the final toast to a designer’s work well done. This is not to say the set overwhelms, it’s not Matthew Bourne. The actors are the stars, and the set facilitates their fear and titillates the audience.
Kevin Sleep's lighting works in harmony with the design, uncovering new elements of the stage as new locations are reached. Gradual dimming to mimic characters’ absorbing gloom and sharp black-outs to enhance the banshee screams are just two of many perfected techniques. The lighting also sharpens the different costumes donned to play the various characters, greyer for Bentley’s office, more yellow for the sumptuous Samuel Daily, and of course misty white for the marshes. It’s subtle enough not to intrude, but bold enough to ostensibly add to the production.
It seems the only potential downfall of The Woman in Black is if it becomes smug and lazy, and the greatest safeguard against this is to keep changing the actors to keep them really feeling the fear. As it stands though, this is an exhilarating production which showcases the immediacy of theatre to bring together a crowd, and its power to send the imagination running wild.
Photo by Pascal Moliere
www.ambassadortickets.com/london / 0844 871 7651
Tuesday – Sunday @ 8pm
Tickets: £15 - £40