Anthony Eden

The Woman in Black

12/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m somewhat amazed to realise that this is actually the fourth time I’ve seen this play – but it’s one I somehow never tire of watching. Its beauty lies in its simplicity, and in the late Stephen Mallatratt’s canny adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic chiller. It’s proof if ever it were needed that a decent novel can be elevated by the way it’s interpreted on the stage. While The Woman in Black incorporates all the tropes of the traditional ghost story, the staging still – thirty years after its debut performance – feels fresh and innovative.

Something bad happened to Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) back down the years and, in an attempt to purge himself of those memories, he has decided to do a performance of it in a down-at-heel theatre, just for friends and family. He has engaged the services of ‘The Actor’ (Anthony Eden) to help him bring this about, but the latter is horrified by Kipp’s stilted attempts at reading and, in a moment of inspiration, he suggests that the two men should swap roles. He will play Kipps, while the older man will portray a number of supporting characters.

And so the rehearsal begins and we are inexorably drawn into the story of Kipps as a younger man, when he was a solicitor, engaged to go to Eel Marsh House in a remote spot on the North East coast of England. There he is to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow – and to settle her estate. It doesn’t help his mood to discover that the house can only be reached via a causeway that will leave him trapped alone in the place for hours at a time. As he goes about his mundane duties, it begins to dawn on him that all is not as it should be – and he learns that the area is haunted by the titular character, a woman intent on seeking revenge for tragic events that happened in the past.

Robert Herford directs with consummate skill, using shadows and sounds and an oppressive atmosphere to conjure an sense of mounting dread. Michael Holt’s exquisite set design keeps finding new places to explore: hidden within what first appears to be a one dimensional setting is a meticulously detailed child’s playroom, a white-shrouded cemetery, a ghastly silhouetted staircase. And has so much apprehension ever been generated from the simple device of a door that can’t be opened – until it opens itself?

It’s all wonderfully evocative. Of course, the fact that I’m so familiar with the play inevitably means that some of the jump-scares are less effective than they were on first viewing. I find myself envious of those undertaking this theatrical thrill ride for the first time.

Some plays are classics for very good reasons. If you’ve never experienced The Woman in Black, here’s your opportunity to sample its twisted delights. Don’t have nightmares.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney