Robert Goodale

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

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

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8/11/14

The Lowry, Salford

A perfect antidote for the November ‘glums’, Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense offered what amounted to a large helping of theatrical fluff. But what accomplished fluff! This superb three-hander, already a substantial hit in the West End, finished it’s run at the Lowry in great style. I’d love to tell you something about the plot but it’s pretty unfathomable – something to do with a silver plated cream jug, a marriage proposal and some hilarious shenanigans concerning a nine foot tall Hitler lookalike. (I think that about covers it). Needless to say, Wooster blunders throughout proceedings in the time-honoured tradition, Jeeves manages to say so much with the merest raising of an eyebrow and I think it’s fair to say that PG Wodehouse would have approved of this interpretation of his work.

The conceit here is that Bertie (James Lance in triumphantly oafish mode) elects to act out one of his recent japes for the audience’s delectation, aided and abetted by Jeeves (John Gordon Sinclair) who in his usual capable manner has arranged for certain ‘props’ to be available. All the other roles (and they are numerous) are enacted by Seppings (Robert Goodale) an elderly retainer charged with a series of lightning fast costume changes. Special mention must go to set and costume designer, Alice Power, who has created a proscenium set that incorporates a multitude of tricky concealed entrances and exits, which enable the action to scamper along at breakneck pace. Some of the reveals are so surprising that the audience couldn’t conceal their gasps of amazement!

The three players handled the piece with consummate panache and during one extended set piece, where Jeeves had to enact two separate characters simultaneously (one male, one female) my laughter threatened to turn to sheer hysteria. Suffice to say, this was triumphant clowning of the highest order. The hearty ovation from a delighted audience was well and truly earned.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney