Michael Holt

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

Looking Good Dead

05/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Superintendent Roy Grace is the protagonist of Peter James’ popular police procedurals – a diligent but troubled policeman, who’ll stop at nothing to solve a case. In Shaun McKenna’s stage adaptation of the second novel, Looking Good Dead, Grace (Harry Long) is relegated to a supporting role. Instead, the focus here is on the Bryce family, inadvertently caught up in a terrible crime. I think this is a wise move; they, after all, form the crux of the story.

Top of the bill, therefore, are soap favourites Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye, as Tom and Kellie Bryce. They enjoy an affluent, suburban life. Tom works; Kellie cleans a lot; their teenage sons, Joe and Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), are – respectively – in Venezuela climbing mountains and on the sofa listening to silence through NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES. Did you get that? NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES. I’ll mention them again anyway, just in case. (Director Jonathan O’Boyle is clearly a fan of Chekhov’s, holding dear the great playwright’s principle: if, in the first act a character has worn noise cancelling headphones, then in the following act, someone must fail to hear something important.) It all seems fine and dandy until a stranger leaves a memory stick on Tom’s commuter train. Tom makes the rash decision to bring it home; he plans to play the good Samaritan by tracking down its owner and ensuring its return. However, when Max plugs the stick into Tom’s computer, it reveals a link… to a murder. Happening in real time before their eyes. What have they been witness to? And what will the killer do when he realises he’s been seen?

Woodyatt and Faye inhabit their characters convincingly, and I especially enjoy Ian Haughton’s performance as the enigmatic Kent. I like Sergeant Branson (Leon Stewart)’s bad jokes, and the way Grace responds to them; this shift in tone works well to undercut some of the more histrionic scenes. The way Michael Holt’s set design incorporates the villain’s lair as well as the Bryces’ home is ingenious, and I am especially impressed with the decisive way the lighting is used to move us from one to the other at the flick of a switch.

There are some issues though – and the main one is the plot. Quite frankly, it’s risible. I’m more than happy to suspend my disbelief, but this stretches the elastic beyond its capacity. I’m unconvinced by any of the characters’ motivations, and am aghast at the ineptitude of the police, who keep politely agreeing to step outside so that suspected serial killers can have a private chat. And why exactly does everyone keep talking and revealing secrets in a room they’ve been told, quite clearly, is bugged? And why exactly exactly is it being bugged in the first place?

In addition, the police station set seems clumsy in comparison to the slick kitchen/lair: it’s pushed on and pulled off with wearisome regularity, and is so small that the actors seem constrained by it. There’s no space for movement, and they lean and perch awkwardly as they deliver their lines. I’m not a fan of the bigger action scenes either; the direction here just isn’t dynamic or fleet-footed enough.

So yes, there are problems. But do I enjoy myself? Yes, I do. Looking Good Dead might be silly but it’s entertaining, and I am more than happy to be back in the environs of the lovely King’s Theatre.

3 stars

Susan Singfield