Over 26 years on, the late Stephen Mallatratt’s cherished stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel remains a Theatreland treasure.
Stephen Mallatratt adapted Susan Hill’s horror novel for the Christmas season at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987, under the wing of the great Alan Ayckbourn. Its downright brilliance saw its transfer to the West End in a little over a year after it premiered.
The Fortune Theatre alone has played host to the production since August 1989 where it has been consistently wowing and terrifying audiences for the duration. Director Robin Herford (having directed the play since its Scarborough days) continues to ensure that the production remains of stellar quality. The current cast of Julian Forsyth as Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as the Actor prove an electric duo and each are wholly deserving of the praise they’ve been showered with.
A play within a play, The Woman in Black follows retired solicitor Arthur Kipps as he hires an actor to help him tell the story of a series of horrific events from his younger years, in a bid to put the memories to bed once and for all. Though first skeptical of the Actor’s methods, and reluctant to try ‘performing’ the story in any way, Kipps soon undergoes a theatrical transformation with the aid of a classic Stanislavskian technique, and then excels in marvellously portraying several characters from his past. Eden masterfully handles Mallatratt’s writing with the warming and familiar tones of a narrator from a Victorian children’s novel. The audience is entirely drawn in, gripped by Eden’s storytelling that subtly builds an underlying tension ripe for piercing with sporadic and petrifying appearances from the woman herself. She floats through the audience, leaving in her wake a ripple of screams from the hordes of GCSE students that frequent the Fortune to the most reserved adults among the audience.
Forsyth’s performance is equally as striking as the spritely Actor, wrapping his malleable face around the character of the young Kipps, as written in the latter’s provided manuscript. The two play off each other perfectly, in a working friendship blossomed from an endearing character clash at the beginning of Act One.
The Stephen Joseph’s tight budget for the original production meant that Mallatratt was forced to devise a production that would work uninhibited by a relatively minimal set - hence the metatheatrical format. The result was as intended, with the current cast’s energetic performances ensuring to secure this reputation. With such a show from the pair, the audience suffers nothing in applying its collective imagination; when Kipps demands “Imagine now!”, we do so with a sincere and excited enthusiasm.
The Woman in Black is the second-longest running production in London theatre’s history, and for good reason. It is faultless - what a treat.
Woman In Black Review: ★★★★★
By Brad St. Ledger