With pale faces and shallow breaths friends have described The Woman in Black to me. Stepping foot inside the packed auditorium it was clear I was not alone. The room pulsed with excitement, hundreds of spectators hungry for horror.
The plot narrowly avoids descending into the typical Victorian, haunted mansion, creepy children category through the genius of its structure. Everything happening within the play is an event from the past, experienced by the elderly gentleman, Mr Kipps (Robert Demeger) who after decades burdened by his fear, decides to relay his story. Kipps, a delightfully doddering character, is aided by the exuberant Actor (Peter Bramhill). The Actor takes on the role of Kipps’ younger self whilst Kipps sets out to play every other character. The Actor and Kipps set off to re-enact the horrific happenings inside the deserted house of Kipps’ late client, Alice Drablow, complete with rolling fogs and haunted rocking chairs.
Although both actors are astonishing, it is Demeger’s superb performance which elevates the play from a creepy tale to a truly affecting piece of theatre. Demeger’s subtly and poise coupled with Bramhill’s electric energy perfectly complement the play’s trickery between performance and reality. Although Demeger adopts half a dozen roles at least, it is to his credit and the talent of director Robin Hereford, that none are monotone stereotypes. Each creation is fully fleshed out and successful in escorting the compelling narrative.
Ironically the play suffers in its use of the titled spectre. The brief seconds when the woman in black appears on stage are the reason you buy your ticket. Without perfecting her appearances the show may as well be Jaws minus the shark. The ghost’s appearances aren’t sharp enough to achieve their blood-curdling potential. The effect was spoilt by her white face being visual which was unnecessary as The Actor’s description of her shrunken flesh will always be more chilling than the thing itself. More often than not I couldn’t help wishing the production has put more trust in their audience’s imagination.
The skill of the actors; their excruciating long silences, building up suspense greedily, didn’t require all the extra fussy details. Kevin Sleep’s lighting design, though for the most part is inspiring, at times feels superfluous. Elaborate gobos, clash with the traditional storytelling when something far simpler would be more effective. Similarly Gareth Owen’s sound design, though initially effective, strays into the chasm of corniness from simply being overused.
Despite pernickety details The Woman in Black is well worth seeing. The innovation of the simple set design, acting and direction save the play from being a predictable scare.
- Beth Friend