December 1987. The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Artistic director Robin Hertford, working with a cripplingly low budget, commissions playwright Stephen Mallatratt to fill a gap in the theatre’s schedule. The result is The Woman In Black, a tense, elegant two-hander based on the Susan Hill novel of the same name.
June 1989. The Woman In Black, still directed by Robin Hertford, is transferred from Westminster’s Playhouse Theatre to the Fortune on Russell Street, where it is to remain for the next 27 years, becoming the second longest-running non-musical in the history of London theatres.
January 2015. Mallatratt’s play arrives at the Oxford Playhouse as part of a national tour, still directed by Robin Hertford, and still essentially the same production that was performed in Scarborough almost three decades ago.
The plot revolves around the young Arthur Kipps’ ill-fated visit to Eel Marsh House, an isolated mansion in rural England with a dark history. Classic horror motifs abound: scared locals reticent to divulge any information, eerie noises echoing from supposedly empty rooms, and the occasional hair-raising sight of the eponymous ghost.
Malcolm James and Matt Connor star respectively as the elderly Arthur Kipps, a timid gentleman frightened by the spotlight, and The Actor, the man entrusted with helping Kipps’ deliver his chilling story to the world on stage. Connor, as The Actor, portrays the young Kipps, whilst James, as Kipps, provides a host of supporting characters.
It is packed full of meta-theatricality; we see Kipps and The Actor slip in and out of character before the audience, delving in and out of Kipps’ story. It is a tremendously effective device, as the audience is periodically thrown into the terrifying world of Eel Marsh House, then dragged back to ‘reality’ for a comforting few minutes before the next breathless plunge.
The Woman In Black’s power to scare derives from this device. The audience is under no illusions as to the pretence, but far from denying the performance any realism, it establishes a firm complicity between performer and viewer, which paradoxically augments the tension, rather than diminishing it.
The play relies substantially on the audience’s imagination, stimulating it with the most subtle of technical direction. A slight change in light shifts a scene from present to past, a bubbling of recorded sound signals a change of location, and the mind of the viewer extrapolates from this a bustling London street, or a deserted marsh, or a windswept graveyard.
Both James and Connor are well cast. The former’s versatility is captivating; he inhabits each idiosyncratic supporting character with a realism that truly delights. The latter, with his wide smile and commanding voice, is perhaps slightly too enthusiastic, but both display an impressive physicality that is as engaging as it is appropriate.
Make no mistake, The Woman In Black is a scary play. Something of the atmospheric intimacy that characterises the productions’ performances at The Fortune is lost in the relatively wide expanse of the OP, but in truth, this matters little when the writing, the direction, and the acting is commendable to the point of eulogy.
The Woman In Black is on until Saturday at The Oxford Playhouse.