The Woman in Black – King’s Theatre

Based on Susan Hill’s Book

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt

Directed by Robin Herford

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Theatres and their spectres have an abundant and symbiotic relationship, many as equally famous as their venues and star-studded productions – after all, are you really a theatre without a ghost?

A rite of passage, The Woman in Black has captivated and frozen the hearts of millions of theatregoers: from aficionados to the fresh-faced enthusiasts. But unlike similar pieces within the genre which may draw in the crowds at a cost, Mallatratt’s stage adaptation maintains an honourable presence of theatre, transforming the space surrounding it into a masterclass of controlled horror and immersive storytelling. Its humble origins as a filler piece, Stephen Mallatrett’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic tale has clambered through the rafters and found tremendous success as a rare exception in the transition from page to screen.

This adaptation takes Susan Hill’s story a step further in continuing the narrative, transforming The Woman in Black into a ‘play within a play’ as Arthur Kipps, played by Robert Goodale, enlists the aid of an unnamed Actor to translate his experiences into a form of therapeutic performance. To make the tale palatable, the Actor played by Antony Eden takes the principal role of Kipps whilst Kipps himself shifts into the varying residents of Eel Marsh island, save for one which continues to haunt him to this day.

Part of the sheer brilliance behind director Robin Herford’s production is the foreshadowing and minimalism, not solely in the hands of the spectre, but in the storytelling mechanics of sound and trickery. The Woman in Black is a reinforcement of adapting to the situation, turning its limitations of staging and prop-usage into an explosive catalyst for the imagination. The excessive billows of smoke shroud the theatre floor as an assault on the senses bewilder audiences into a realm of unease, anxiety and tension. Sebastian Frost’s sound design ties directly into the staging of the ‘play’, the sounds of cloven hooves and creaking floorboards understated and utilised tidily.

As well as the tight sound design, the production has one tremendous merit within Kevin Sleep’s lighting plays as equal a part in heightening the stakes as possible – continuing the minimalist trends in structure, the capturing of depth with lighting changes enhances and broadens the limited spacing, providing scale to the enormous and empty manor house, providing a sense of isolation and mourning. Coupled with the masterful storytelling, the illuminations of a seemingly locked door and its contents serve as a reminder of the visceral gruesomeness of pain lurking behind the theatricality.

Less is more, and there’s a delicate balance present with how often the spectre pays a visit. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to spoil your heart’s upcoming surprises, but while every manifestation or suggestion of something afoot is meticulous – there’s perhaps room for an additional fright or two lost in the transition of the production from the ever famous (and claustrophobic) surroundings of the Fortune Theatre.

Herford’s direction emanates complete control, Michael Holt’s striking authentic horror not in the jump-scares but with the tension of the sets nooks and crannies. Honest terror comes not from the loud bang or the ghoulish presence, but from the anticipation, the audience unsure whether to trust their senses – was it the ghost? Or was it someone opening another KitKat…?

But with all the technical deception in the world, The Woman in Black’s success resides in the exceptional capabilities of casting, direction and a script which, while heavy in text, never squanders opportunity. Mallatratt’s script concocts a fine example of theatrical adoration, maintaining clarity to the narrative given its meta-textual structure. And long-standing cast member Eden still revels in the joy of the character and the thrill of performance, a marvellous display of energy and lustre as if he was hearing the story for the first time. The chemistry with Goodale is tangible, the pair capturing the back and forth between the Actor and Kipps, Goodale giving it their all to impart a sense of dread and individualism to each role he undertakes.

Of course, there is another to thank for their part in the production. Though not all may have noticed the talents of Audrone Koc whose presence within the play has been something of note for many a production. And so deft is Koc’s importance to the show that some may not even realise her input, but she’s there – somewhere, right?

A packed theatre and the hallowed screams of terror – for many, this is what the nation has been missing in its arts community over the past two years. Perhaps The Woman in Black’s stamp of approval and merit to Mallatratt and Herford is the flocking audience to the Kings, flocking for an Autumn fright. A decades-old tale, as powerful and influential now as ever, commanding a sense of foreboding, and yet with spritely humour and liveliness, The Woman in Black is a love letter to theatre, to the past and loss. We do hope you’ll be watching – because she certainly will.

The Woman in Black runs at the King’s Theatre until October 16th, then continues on tour. Tickets can be booked here.

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