Adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt, the play recently celebrated its 25thyear at the Fortune Theatre in London. Coming to the supposedly haunted Theatre Royal in Brighton, a far more intimate venue, only heightened the fear and eerie atmosphere for the audience.
While the jump scares are ever present, the small venue gives a stronger sense of tension and the feeling that the Woman in Black may be only feet away from you – and in some areas in the stalls, this is true!
The adaptation takes on a ‘play within a play’ type set up. Initially the audience are introduced to Arthur Kipps who wants to share his experience with The Woman in Black with help from The Actor. The rest of the play switches between performances of Kipps’ story and dialogue between the older Kipps and the Actor.
The Woman in Black is a story of death, desperation and disaster. When Alice Drablow dies, Kipps’ law firm inherit her estate, Eel Marsh House. Kipps is sent to sort out her abundance of paperwork, but in doing so he uncovers the dark secrets that the isolated house has harboured for decades. Sightings of the black clad, skeletal faced Woman in Black evoke fear in both the actors and the terrified audience.
Unlike the cinematic horror experience, where the desensitised audience rely on jump cuts and ‘this-bit-is-scary’ music for their chills, Mallatratt has to really engage the audience to create a theatrical horror that actually scares people. Judging by the regular shrieks in the stalls, I’d say he achieved this!
Mallatratt achieves this firstly through the sparsity of the set. Designed by Michael Holt, the set makes the actors and audience participate in a childlike game of ‘let’s pretend’, where a wicker trunk is used as anything from a horse and trap, to a train to a bed. This imaginative engagement means the audience must focus solely on the plot and the actors.
Which leads on to Mallatratts second technique to thrill his audience: the actors, or lack thereof. There are only two credited actors, Malcolm James, who plays older Arthur Kipps and all other male charters during the performance, and Matt Connor, taking on the role of younger Arthur Kipps and The Actor.
There is no credited actress for the Woman in Black, which – combined with the mysterious, unanswered ending – begs the question; who is the Woman in Black and was she really present at Theatre Royal Brighton?