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Brighton Year-Round 2021

The Woman in Black

PW Productions Ltd

Genre: Adaptation, Costume, Drama, Literature, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

Directed by Robert Herford, Assistant Director Antony Eden, Designed by Michael Holt, Lighting Design Kevin Sleep, Original Sound Design Rod mead, Sound Designer Sebastian Frost, Production Manager Simon Reynolds. Till September 4th and touring.


The swirl of a fret has haunted theatre stages for 34 years. Susan Hill’s 1983 chiller The Woman in Black was swiftly adapted by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987 before the slightly more detailed TV film emerged in 1989, and a feature film in 2012. Currently it’s only behind The Mousetrap as the longest-running West End play.

Has it dated? Mallatratt’s brilliance is in conjuring the haunted man Arthur Kipps thirty years after the main events, and his choices. Now about 60, he’s hired The Actor to help him re-enact and exorcise those events which he himself has written in the frame of friend badgering him for a Christmas ghost story. ‘They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough’ are his script’s last words. But.

Rewind. Antony Eden’s very active Actor is exasperated by the man who’s hired him and learn how to tell Kipps’ story. Kipps at first resistant and prone to snatch back the script and give up, repeats the intro four times to screaming point. No the audience will never take it. Five hours has to be boiled down.

Actor suddenly gives Kipps a pair of spectacles, a bit like the late 1960s Gerry Anderson Joe 90 and he’s transformed of course. Fine comedy’s contained in this maladroit theatre business and Robert Goodale is superb at playing it.

Suddenly Actor’s Kipps and Goodale all other parts. Eventually they share the Kipps role.

In 1921 young Arthur Kipps a junior solicitor agrees to act for the senior solicitor of his firm, and attend the funeral of one Alice Drablow, who’s died at 87 long-widowed and unlamented. Then go through all her voluminous papers. Even the local solicitor won’t help him go to the house where only one driver and one landowner are of any help at all. Kipps sees the Woman in Black. The first appearance seems a portent far earlier. Everyone in the town is terrified of anyone venturing to the house; the local solicitor too.

Directed by Robert Herford at a deliberately slow-winding pace, with assistant director Antony Eden, the apparently simple designed by Michael Holt suggests the theatre we’re sitting in, nominally empty. A diaphanous partition has its uses. The grey floorboards, the hamper, a coat-rack stage right and a simple writing desk and chairs furnish all the storytelling up front.

Lighting Design Kevin Sleep has much to do. First as theatre technician Bunce, then the roomy effects, with marsh-lit depths. Original sound design by Rod Mead has been updated by sound designer Sebastian Frost to lend further depth everywhere in the theatre. Production Manager’s Simon Reynolds.

The querulous Goodale with his gallimaufry of accents – and sudden kick into gear – is first-rate. Eden, also assistant director manages to convey that rather wannabe heroism in a young actor not quite mature enough to know he’s occasionally hamming, though distinctly promising. It’s a subtle performance underneath the braggadocio. Thrusting with the bit between his lines Actor’s eager to see what surprise Kipps will spring. He’s full of compliments when Kipps does.

So does this dramatisation stand up? As an original take, very well in its essentials, and more imaginatively than screen takes – necessarily more literal. Those who’ve not seen it – though read the novel and/or seen screened versions – will be surprised.

There are moments beginning to creak a little. The interval comes two-to-three minutes late. You’ll see why. The horror side elicits shock – and a few giggles now. Something needs adjusting and the means are already lurking within the design. Again, no spoilers. Ultimately it’s above all the acting that impresses, why it’s so highly reommendable.

If the genre suits, don’t hesitate. It’s as fine a touring production as you’re likely to see. Though it needs overhauling. This is still a classic chiller, and with the sound update it’s clear The Woman in Black intends to chill us long into this century too.