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Review – The Woman in Black – National Tour at the Playhouse, Liverpool

BY the time Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s book finally brought down the curtain on its London production earlier this year after almost 34 years, The Woman in Black had clocked up well over 13,000 performances and remains surpassed only by The Mousetrap as the longest running non-musical West End play. That’s not counting the tally of numerous national tours it has made over the years nor several international productions.

There’s a reason that the show continues to enjoy such enduring popularity and to pack houses – it is a genuinely well crafted piece of work which takes a classic ghost story (always a crowd pleaser) and stages it with real flair.

Mallatratt’s version of the book frames the story with a clever meta-theatrical device, having Arthur Kipps, the tale’s leading protagonist, engage the services of an actor to help him tell his own tragic tale in the hope that it will exorcise the ghosts that have haunted him for decades. The setting for this retelling is an empty Victorian theatre, so Liverpool’s Playhouse is an absolutely perfect venue for it. The 1866 building’s auditorium remains largely unchanged since its conversion from musical hall to repertory theatre in 1911, and this grand old lady of the theatre world is reputed to have resident ghosts of her own.

For someone like myself who has seen the production numerous times over the years, what impresses most is its ability to remain fresh and never to lose its electricity, possibly down to the fact that, on each occasion, it is presented with a new cast who bring their own nuances to it. For this tour Kipps is played by Malcolm James and The Actor by Mark Hawkins, who, under the watchful eye of director Robin Herford, deliver the text with pin-sharp clarity and expert timing. Hawkins captures perfectly the way in which The Actor’s air of superiority and confidence is slowly consumed by the encroaching menace of the story until, by the end, he is as haunted as the man he set out to help.

James, meanwhile, is clearly having a whale of a time as Kipps, who gets to embody every other character in the play (except two). After a deliberately shaky start, the donning of a pair of spectacles gets him into the swing of acting, and after this there is no holding him back.

The entire show relies heavily on the imagination of the audience, but with such brilliant mime work we almost believe we can see such things as the carriages they ride in or the small dog ‘Spider’ who becomes The Actor’s companion.

Alongside the stage performances, the other two stars of the show are the sound and lighting design. Kevin Sleep’s lighting brings Michael Holt’s deceptively simple multi-layered set to life, and the interplay of shadows with the use of stage gauze effects is a masterclass in stage craft. Sebastian Frosts’s sound design (based on an original from Rod Mead) does for this show what Bernard Herrmann’s  score did for Psycho – the atmosphere and suspense are built with tremendous skill and the silences, when they occur, are deafening and laden with tension.

A proper slow creeper, this show may not be for those who are looking for a theatrical rollercoaster ride, but seriously – ghost stories rarely get better than this. The press night audience was filled with people who were alternately sinking down into their seats behind their coats or jumping out of their skins, including one or two burly young men who were clutching terrified at their dates’ arms! I strongly suspect that a few people will be sleeping with the lights on after this.

Currently in the midst of a nationwide tour which runs to the beginning of June, The Woman in Black is making an extended stay in Liverpool up to 30th December, with nightly performances from Monday to Saturday plus additional matinees.

Star rating: 5 stars
Review by Nigel Smith

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