Review: The Woman in Black at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

It’s half-term, it’s Halloween, and the original London production of The Woman in Black is touring at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Our occasional Yorkshire guest reviewers Bethy (13), Harry (15) and Dave (classified) went to check it out.

Did I say London? Wearing my official flat cap, I should correct this to the original SCARBOROUGH production, as the play was originally made for the 1987 Christmas production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. With Alan Ayckbourn away in London, artistic director Robin Herford had the problem of making an end-of-season production when they’d pretty well run out of money. The solution was to run a Christmas ghost-story with the minimum possible budget – minimum cast, minimum set (but not quite as minimal as it first looks), effects limited to sound, lighting, gauze, and a bit of dry ice. The result made theatrical history, and has been running in London ever since, with a regular change of cast but still the same director.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

The story was by Susan Hill – a fine ghost story where a young London solicitor Arthur Kipps has to settle a dead woman’s affairs on a remote part of the East Yorkshire coast, where he encounters taciturn locals who won’t talk about events at the abandoned house by the graveyard across the causeway – you get the general idea. But the play belongs at least as much to adapter Stephen Mallatratt, who hit on the framing device which shows an older Kipps who is determined to tell his story, so engages the help of a an actor and rehearses in an empty theatre. This seems pretty unlikely, but it works brilliantly, with the “bad magic” of the Woman being set against the “good magic” of theatre. This provides some necessary contrast and a number of laughs, which seem to make the creepy moments, of which there are many, much creepier. “The actor” plays young Kipps in their rehearsals, while Kipps plays all the other characters – and if his transition from raw beginner to accomplished character actor is rather rapid, well, that’s magic for you.

Of our panel of reviewers, Harry didn’t enjoy the play very much – he felt too much time was spent establishing “this guy can’t act” at the start, and that what followed was too dependent on jump-scares – some of them put in for no good plot reason but just for the simple fun of making the audience jump. But Bethy, who already liked the movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, loved the show, which she thought was very different and much more frightening than the movie, and that the absence of gory movie effects (kids vomiting blood etc.) actually made it much scarier. She was also very impressed by the performances of David Acton as Kipps and Matthew Spencer as “the actor”, and commented, “It’s really hard to act not being able to act!” And Dave greatly enjoyed the sheer theatricality of the piece, and laughed rather more than Bethy felt was appropriate – though I can assure her it was nervous laughter.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

So the two longest-running bits of theatre in the country are The Mousetrap and The Woman in Black – should you bother to see them? In the case of The Mousetrap I’d say not to bother – there are far better detective dramas, including better ones by Agatha Christie, and it was already looking tired when I saw it 40 years ago. But in the case of The Woman in Black, it’s a classic bit of 80s theatre, it’s wonderfully theatrical and genuinely scary, and yes, you should see it. But if possible go with someone whose hand you can reasonably hold, and plan to unwind afterwards! (We ate take-away pizza and watched Shakespeare in Love.)

The Woman in Black is currently touring, and also running in London, apparently forever.

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