Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, The Woman in Black is a chilling horror story that was adapted for the stage over 27 years ago. And yet, the late Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation remains as poignant and terrifying as it has for many years. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the play follows former lawyer Arthur Kipps, an elderly man haunted by the past and desperate to have his story told. He seeks the help of an actor, who agrees to play Kipps in a re-telling for his family and friends. Together, they perform Kipps’ tale of a secluded manor, a town struck by terror, and the reoccurring appearance of a mysterious woman in black with a wasted face.
Matthew Spencer stars as the dynamic and keen young actor, who plays Arthur Kipps in their re-telling of Kipps’ story. Despite the history of the play, Spencer breathes new life into the character and offers immense likability. As the actor, he is bold and theatrical, as Kipps, reserved and distressed. Through him, we are able to share Kipps’ trepidation and horror. However, David Acton, who plays an elderly, tormented Arthur Kipps, offers an equally exceptional performance. He brings a remarkable fragility to the character and displays some skilful character acting with the roles that Kipps plays within the story, such as the tortured land agent, Mr Jerome and the rather unforthcoming trap driver, Keckwick. The shared narration between him and Spencer was both thoroughly detailed and thrillingly suspenseful.
However, it was the interactions between Acton and Spencer on stage that were most noteworthy. Despite the suspense of the play, there were interludes of charming humour in the scenes that they shared, whichever characters they were playing. Which in part is due to the captivating writing. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation is a great testament to the remarkable quality of his writing and paired with the direction of Robin Herford, they have created a heart-pounding and terrifying spectacle.
Although it takes a little while for the story itself to begin, this re-telling of the classic novel is both timeless and imaginative. And despite the simplicity of the set and costumes, the creative uses of lighting by Kevin Sleep and the reliance upon audience imagination create the horrifying scenes that Acton and Spencer describe. And while the use of a play-within-a-play can often fall flat, this unsettling tale does anything but.