It is now nearly 30 years since we in Scarborough were privileged to see the first run of Stephen Mallatrat’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel.
It made perfect sense at the time, given the limitations of the auditorium and finances, to stage it as a two hander (plus the uncredited Woman herself) with a small team of creatives.
What were originally seen as limiting factors emerged as brilliant strengths. Using only two highly versatile actors focused audience attention and, eventually, sympathy as the Woman herself wrought devastation on the characters who saw her.
I have never tried to learn one half of a two hour play, but I imagine the demands on even a trained actor’s memory must be considerable. Christopher Godwin (Arthur Kipps) and son Tom (The Actor) never miss a beat and convincingly sweep the audience into the world of Victorian Gothic.
The simplicity of Michael Holt’s set is also an asset. All that we see is a wicker basket, a chair, a coat stand and a gauze backdrop.
From these, solicitor Arthur Kipps unravels a powerful story of family madness, hate and murder.
Then we have the climactic Grande Guignol moments as the ghostly Woman herself appears. As I write these words, an icy finger creeps down my spine.
Director Robin Herford knows how to engage the audience directly in the action. His actors are never more than a few feet away from the front row. Such proximity provides a powerful theatrical experience.
Sound Designer Gareth Owen’s effects seem to place a crashing horse and buggy somewhere in the the middle of Row G. When it was first used, it had people sitting in front of me looking over their shoulders.
Did Susan Hill conceive the Woman in Black as a metaphor for AIDS, given its appearance in the 1980s? It is possible, with its theme of an evil that is passed on from
Whatever the literary intentions, the play remains an old-style melodrama that can still elicit gasps from the public.
I am sure many audience members will have insisted on sleeping with the light on that night.
The Woman in Black runs at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on various dates until August 2 before transferring to the Fortune Theatre in the West End – its London home for more than 21 years. Christopher and Tom will star.
Review by Mike Tilling