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The Woman in Black (tour – Cambridge)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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We’re in a theatre, probably an old one. It’s “dark” (in theatrical parlance); there’s no show in production. The stage is stripped back to a clothes rack, some dusty drapes and a left-over property basket. An older man walks on, reading from a manuscript in a monotone. Suddenly he is interrupted, by a younger man, an actor.

Sounds familiar? That depends on whether or not you know the late Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black or not. It’s a ghost story which we see acted out as a sort of exorcism for Arthur Kipps (and the name is in itself a tribute to another master storyteller H G Wells). He has to tell what happened many years ago to a gathering of friends and family, but needs professional assistance to recount it properly.

The two actors in Robin Herford’s touring production are excellent. Between them they play all the human parts with Robert Demeger switching between faded lawyer Kipps and the different people met when, as a young man, he was sent into a north-east coastal area to settle outstanding matters after the death of an elderly client at his practice. Peter Bramhill is the hired actor who then becomes the young Kipps on his strange journey.

In the early scenes both inject humour into their roles. The mood darkens once we’re in the country, for all the beauty of the skies above a landscape shimmering in sea-mists and tide-shifted sands. This is a production designed by Michael Holt where stage management (Jonathan Oliver, Ian Andrew Hawkins and Tom Coyne), sound (Rod Mead, Gareth Owen and Richard Marshall) and lighting (Kevin Sleep and Tony Simpson) deserve to be fully acknowledged, as does Nicole Ashwood.

Good thrillers have psychological depth as well as a well-paced story; the chill lies in making us believe in impossible probabilities. When Bramhill as the younger Kipps wanders at night through the house where natural sounds, even creaks, are elaborated into something altogether more unnerving or when Demeger as the country solicotor cannot bring himself to articulate what has been so appalling, you believe them. There’s a delightful mimed dog called Spider; dogs are supposed to sense what humans cannot, but Spider has her own immune system.

In the cinema or watching television one has a sense of being something of a solitary viewer. Half-seen horrors on the screen largely reinforce this feeling. But in the theatre, where your eye can choose to look where it will? That’s where a woman in black might just truly haunt you.

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