February 29th, 2020
It’s amazing how much spookiness can be generated by darkness, torchlight and very loud screams. I was expecting hi-tech wizardry from Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story, The Woman in Black. But, as it turned out, no CGI gimmicks or expensive props were necessary. When it comes to ghost stories atmosphere is what matters and this imaginative ‘back to basics’ production cast its own spell.
Elderly solicitor Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) is haunted by the past. Seeking the help of a professional actor (Daniel Easton, a dead ringer for a young Alexander Armstrong), he hopes that by telling the story of his youthful experiences at Eel Marsh House and Nine Lives Causeway he will finally exorcise the ghost of the Woman in Black.
When the play opens it is as though we have strayed into an amdram performance of a Samuel Beckett drama: a drab stage with a flimsy grey curtain backdrop, bare except for a wicker basket and a couple of metal buckets. Kipps starts reading from his notebook in a mumbling monotone. He falters, stops, then starts again, with the same result. It is a curious beginning, one that wrong-foots the audience, who are expecting more polished diction and projection. Enter the Actor, striding confidently down the theatre aisle and proclaiming that ‘we will make an Olivier of you yet’.
The two men argue, then agree to act out the story in Kipps’s notebook with the Actor playing the part of a youthful Kipps. The solicitor will try his hand at all the other roles.
As the ghost story plays out on stage the older Kipps is gradually transformed into a skilled mimic of the people from his past. Playwright Mallatratt cleverly takes his audience on a similar journey: from unpromising raw materials to theatrical magic. With the help of fine acting, sound effects, lighting and old-fashioned stagecraft we make our own imaginative leaps: the wicker basket becomes a train carriage, a bed or a pony cart; dry ice and silhouette conjure up sea mist and Eel Marsh House.
Many of Susan Hill’s original descriptions of this eerie landscape are recited by the Actor, adding colour and helping to create a mood of dread. The weather becomes an unstable character, changing from awe-inspiring to broody to malevolent: ‘it was a mist like a damp, clinging cobwebby thing, fine yet impenetrable … as though it were made of millions of live fingers that crept over me.’
By the end of the play the audience are on tenterhooks, primed for what M.R. James called ‘a pleasing terror’. Susan Hill, a big fan of the master of ghost story writing, knows that the thing half-glimpsed out of the corner of the eye is more scary than in-your-face horror. The unknown unsettles us.
In one of the most effective scenes young Kipps lies in bed in Eel Marsh House, his face dimly lit but everything else in shadow. Suddenly there is a noise – a strange rhythmic knocking. He gets up to investigate as we struggle to figure out what is causing it. The noise is coming from a room which was previously locked. And we know that beyond the door will be something unspeakable …