Review – The Woman In Black At The Liverpool Playhouse

ARTHUR Kipps doesn’t want to make a performance, he just needs his story to be told, and Stephen Mallatratt’s dramatization of Susan Hill’s gothic horror novel is classic storytelling of the sort that traditionally takes place by the flickering light of a winter fireside. The play first appeared in 1987, and this touring production has been doing the rounds since 1989. Testament to its theatricality is shown in that over 7 million people have seen it and it’s still packing houses. Kipps has engaged an actor to help him exorcise the phantoms of his past by reciting his tale, and the play begins with Kipps tentatively reading the opening lines in an empty theatre. The story unfolds with a very measured tread in the dark, dusty surroundings, and the slowness of the initial development lulls us into a sense of security, building the air of tension and foreboding gradually. There are a good few shocks of the “bump in the night” variety that propel the more nervous viewers from their seats, but it is in the creeping sense of dread that the real horror lies. David Acton has a host of characters to portray along with his Arthur Kipps, and there is plenty of humour in his numerous reappearances in disguise. Matthew Spencer is The Actor, who directs the flow of the story, waving his arms like some Victorian conjurer as we move from scene to scene. It’s clear that there is much fun to be had in the two-handed performance, and the playfulness manages to convey itself without disarming the necessary sense of fear. The simply designed set with atmospheric low-key lighting is occasionally consumed in heavy palls of mist, and the overall creepiness is completed by some excellent sound design. This is a classic chiller of a piece that looks great on stage and is graced by a pair of crisply defined performances from Acton and Spencer. Perfect fare for the time of year, The Woman in Black is at the Playhouse until Saturday 12th November. Review by Nigel Smith