Susan Hill’s critically acclaimed ghostly novella is given new life by the talented Stephen Mallatratt’s excellent adaptation. It’s a grand production, directed by Robin Herford that is a spine-chillingly awesome depiction of the otherworldly, suggestion, illusion and paranormal horror. The premise is as follows: a lawyer named Arthur Kipps is obsessed with a curse, of which he think he’s been afflicted.
He thinks he and his family have been cursed by a ‘woman in black’, and recruits a very sceptical young actor (Matt Connor) to help him to tell his story of ghastly ghouls, vanishing dames, whispery spectres and creatures that go bump in the night, which turns into an attempt to exorcise the sheer terror and ferocious fear that has latched itself onto this poor man’s soul. The story begins sweetly enough, but as we see the layers unravel, we see that this is more than a story of delving into the past. It’s a story about morality, ethics and people. Furthermore, the horrors that manifest themselves inside us that lurk in the shadows of the human soul.
Since its first tour back in 1987, The Woman In Black has been on tour an awful lot. Stephen Mallatratt adapted this from the 1983 novella by Susan Hill, and this horror story has recently broadened its audience to secondary school children, thanks to the 2012 adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe. With its tiny cast and simple set design, this stage play has kept aspects of its theatrical eighties origins. All this is added to intelligent writing, theatrical trickery with smart uses of lights and smoke effects but most notably, its basic storytelling, that casts an eerie atmospheric veil over the largest of audiences.
From the start, Kipps (Malcolm James) and The Actor (Connor) hit it off with a rapport that oozes brilliance as we see in this horror story up until its last scenes. Herford’s direction is briskly paced and bouncy, throwing jump scares in without warning and sliding in segments of comedy and Gothic themes, all aided with spooky sound effects conveniently added in to give us more frights. After watching it the other night, I have to say, I did suffer a few jumps when the cloaked lady appears out of nowhere. Moreover, it’s the sets and ambience that make send a blanket of fear over the audience.
This tale follows a trail of late Victorian horror, akin to the likes Bram Stoker’s Dracula telling a tragic story behind the monsters. The monsters are one thing but the superstitions that come with it are something else entirely, as both stories are set in places inhabited by fear-stricken villagers. The lack of lights adds insult to injury, making the fear factor even more potent on its audience. The sets, lights, sounds and the costume design are components that make this a textbook Victorian play. Ghosts in the Victorian era? All we need now is it to be Christmas and it’d be a fully fledged horror, subsequently leading us to a dark ending with a brutal twist.