The Woman in Black (QPAC and touring) – theatre review

Two actors, some props, lighting… sounds rudimentary – but the result in The Woman in Black is astounding. This storied play remains the second-longest running production in London’s West End, racking up over 13,000 performances between 1989 and 2023. (The longest-running is The Mousetrap.) Now this localised version of the London production is touring the country.

Despite its Victorian feel, the play is surprisingly recent. Writer Stephen Mallatratt adapted Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name in 1987. It came to the West End in 1989 and the rest, as they say, is history. This version has the fingerprints of the London production all over it. The director is Robin Herford, who helmed the London run; and the principal production company is PW Productions, the vehicle of the original producer Peter Wilson. You might recall a production mounted here in 2006 starring John Waters; and the actor is back for this edition.

Waters plays Arthur Kipps, a retired lawyer. Kipps has brought his story to a character referred to only as The Actor (Daniel MacPherson) for help in bringing it to life. Although Kipps wants to keep it fairly private, The Actor sees more. He convinces Kipps that his dull monotone delivery isn’t going to cut it. So he proposes that he will play Kipps, and Kipps will in turn play all the other characters in order to flesh out the story.

In the play-within-the-play, it’s many years earlier. The younger Kipps is instructed by his firm to travel from London to the remote seaside village of Crythin Gifford. A longstanding client, Mrs Drablow, has died and an inventory of the estate needs to be made. When Kipps arrives after a long train journey, he finds the locals not all that forthcoming about Mrs Drablow. Seems she was something of a recluse and rumours of sinister goings-on at her isolated house – evocatively dubbed Eel Marsh House – have swirled for years. The firm’s local agent, Mr Jerome, arranges for he and Kipps to attend Mrs Drablow’s funeral. At the graveside, Kipps sees a young woman dressed entirely in black with a gaunt face. He feels sympathy for her, as he assumes she has a “wasting disease”. Jerome arranges for Keckwick, a local man with a pony, to take Kipps to Mrs Drablow’s house to go through her papers.

The house is on a small island connected to the mainland by a causeway. But when the tide is high, the causeway is underwater, cutting the house off. After seeing the number of Mrs Drablow’s papers and their disorganised state, Kipps decides he will need to stay overnight in the house if he’s going to complete his assignment in the allotted time. Keckwick mutters grimly about the wisdom of doing so, but Kipps won’t be swayed. Keckwick lends Kipps his dog as a companion. But a dog won’t be much help against the evil that lurks in the house.

Mallatratt’s script is a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. The framing device works surprisingly well, even given its rather artificial premise. Once the main part of the play gets going, the tension ratchets up slowly but relentlessly, until you realise you’re gripping the armrest of your seat. While Mallatratt has included only a couple of jump-scares, they’re very effective. But the overall mood is one of grim dread, rather than out-and-out horror.

Herford’s direction is excellent. This is old-school theatre that plays on the power of suggestion rather than relying on spectacle. Many of the play’s most chilling moments rely on simple things – a rocking chair, a music box, a single light on a darkened stage. The kicker at the very end is genius.

John Waters and Daniel MacPherson form a seamless team as the two protagonists. They’re thrown into an actor’s dream (and possibly nightmare) of playing different characters – including each other in a sense – in different time periods. Both handle the challenge brilliantly.

The Woman in Black offers an exhilarating night at the theatre. This is a first-class production that honours and elevates its source material.

The Woman in Black on tour 2024:
Now Playing to 11 May
Playhouse, QPAC
15 – 26 May
Dunstan Playhouse
30 May – 9 June
His Majesty’s Theatre
13 June – 6 July
Athenaeum Theatre
9 – 14 July
Canberra Theatre Centre
17 – 21 July
Illawarra Performing Arts Centre
23 – 27 July
Civic Theatre
30 July – 17 August
Theatre Royal Sydney

David Edwards

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