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Review: The Woman In Black @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

The theatrical beauty of The Woman In Black lies in the stark minimalism of the set, the graceful simplicity of Stephen Mallatratt’s script, and the sheer horror that laces Susan Hill’s story. These three elements lay a groundwork on which the audience’s imagination constructs a series of remarkably arresting scenes; with the aid of two sterling performances and some impressive technical direction, they are the evocative footing on which the thrilling tale of Eel Marsh House and its ghostly resident spirals into life.

Malcolm James plays Arthur Kipps, a shy, elderly gentleman whose endearing temerity is matched only by his unwavering resolve that his story must be told. Matt Connor plays the nameless actor he tasks with bringing it to life. In an elegant meta-theatrical stroke, both men drop into character before us, with The Actor portraying a younger version of Kipps himself, and Kipps playing a host of idiosyncratic supporting characters.

This extended play-within-a-play is a brilliantly conceived ploy, simultaneously ensuring the audience’s complicity (and thus imbuing every character with an otherwise unattainable realism) and lending the play a confidential, uneasily cosy atmosphere. Kipps and The Actor periodically snap in and out of character, delving in and out of the story. The audience rides this rollercoaster with them, plunging into the thrilling realm of ghostly women and haunted graveyards, then surfacing into the comforting world of ‘reality’ for just long enough to catch a breath before the next white-knuckle dive into Kipps’ tale.

The tale itself is simple, yet all the more potent for it: a young solicitor, a dead old woman and her will, a remote village, an isolated mansion reached by a long causeway, and a sickeningly disfigured spectre of a woman dressed in black. Each scene change is emphasised by a deft change of lighting and some appropriate background noise; these provide perfect stimulation for the audience’s imagination. It is exactly as The Actor professes: merely hint at a few facets of a location and the mind of the viewer can fill in the gaps.

When staged at the Fortune Theatre in the West End, as it has been for over 25 years, the venue’s claustrophobic quality lends the story a compelling closeness that augments the shocks and distils the unsettling atmosphere. At the Oxford Playhouse, however, the relative openness of the performance space somewhat spoils this effect. It is still an undeniably engaging experience, but the beads of sweat on Kipps’ brow cannot be discerned, the musty smell of the wooden set cannot be detected, and the play’s characteristic tension is compromised.

James is ideally cast as the ederly Arthur Kipps and his gradual transformation from timid performer to consummate actor is both entertaining and absorbing particularly when Kipps (that is, James) adopts the role of Keckwick, the taciturn local. Connor is similarly proficient, but occasionally contrives to overact; his attitude is sometimes too enthusiastic, his gait too pronounced, his smile too wide. As a result, interaction between the two can seem somewhat clunky.

Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel originally began life as a low-budget two-hander at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1987. In 1989, it was produced in London, and has been running continuously ever since, attracting nearly three million theatre-goers. Despite all this, Robin Hertford’s production, now on an extensive national tour, has never lost its quintessential sparseness, nor its power. With its masterful combination of lighting, sound, script and story, it seizes the audience’s imagination and takes it on a breathless, twisting, terrifying journey that delights as much as it chills.

4/5

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