★★★★★ | The Woman In Black, Sheffield Lyceum Theatre & National Tour
et in an old theatre in the late 1950’s, a solicitor, Arthur Kipps, enlists the assistance of a young actor to tell his story. His tale revolves around a terrifying incident when he was younger, when he travelled to the Eel Marsh House to settle the estate of a long standing deceased client. Initially finding a conspiracy of secrecy from the locals, he makes his way across the Nine Lives Causeway, which is cut off at high tide. Alone in the mansion, he is plagued by the sound of a pony and trap, an unexplained banging noise and a door which appears to be locked from the inside. What secrets does the estate hold, what lurks in the swirling mist… And who is the woman in black he keeps seeing?
This chilling and effective ghost story is beautifully crafted and used simple techniques to create an immensely taught atmosphere in the theatre. The lighting design in particular was exceptional. Who would have thought that a dark stage with just a door highlighted would draw worried mumblings from those around you? This is a theatrical experience like no other.
The production slowly cranks up the tension, which quite literally draws you to the edge of your seat and then throws you back into it with “cattle prod” jolts that elicited genuine screams of terror from the audience. The narrative of the piece completely draws you in; and the production avoids spoon feeding you the story, leaving you as the audience to create your own horrors in your imagination. The set, staging and props were remarkably effective in their simplicity and created an atmosphere where you held your breath with the central character as he explored the darkness. Setting the show in a theatre made you instantaneously part of the production and the dark atmosphere and low level lighting only add to the gloominess and intimacy of the piece.
The performances from the two leads were both excellent, with Matt Connor playing the part of The Actor and Young Kipps, and Malcolm James providing the elderly Kipps and the other characters he comes across. It came as a surprise just how effective a simply staged double hander could be and the way in which the audience is manipulated via the events unfolding on stage is testament to the outstanding writing behind the show.
This show is not akin to the recent film, so those expecting the Daniel Radcliffe version will be disappointed. It is faithful to its original source material, the book by Susan Hill. If anything, it is more reminiscent of “The Haunting” (1963) which leaves everything to the imagination. Here, the effective equivalent of the tradition of sitting round an open fire and telling ghost stories proves that there is more to what is unseen than what is seen; and is an absolutely perfect pre-Halloween treat or a superbly chilling way to spend a dark, stormy winter evening.