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Review: The Woman in Black at The Athenaeum

Reviewed by Lucy Lucas

Continuing its national tour after successful seasons in Perth and Adelaide The Woman in Black has finally made its way to Melbourne’s Atheneum Theatre. An amusing and lively interpretation of a gothic classic the play is ultimately more farcical than frightening – though not entirely to its detriment. 

Based on Susan Hill’s eponymous 1983 novel, The Woman in Black follows an elderly man (John Waters) as he approaches a young actor (Daniel MacPherson) for help telling his tale to the world. Together they weave scenes of the old man’s life, as he is sent from his London solicitors office to the remote coastal town of Crythin Gifford to deal with the estate and affairs of the late Mrs. Drablow. There he discovers reluctant and uncommunicative townsfolk, hostile sea-mist covered moors and a mansion filled with the echoes of its past.  

The opening act merely hints at the horrors to come, judiciously sprinkling jump scares and eerie vignettes among a primarily funny and light-hearted two-hander. Though a generally fun experience, the play is never far enough ahead of its audience to provide any sense of real disturbance or tension. Mostly relying on sustained silence or darkness followed by sudden sound or lighting shifts to produce jump scares the work never strays far enough from classic tropes to be surprising or truly shocking. A clearly tried and true formula (it is the second longest running West End show of all time after the Mousetrap) it remains a mostly shallow yet playful experience. Generating fear in such public way is difficult, each genuine scream or gasp is followed by a burst of embarrassed laughter and building rigid tension in the collective is almost impossible. Coupled with the dated and campy British-ness of it all there was an air of farcical silliness that punctured any sense of true danger that might have been developed. The meta formation of the work – switching back and forth between the actor and writer creating it and the story itself – helps this somewhat. By allowing the work to acknowledge the performative elements of ghost-stories it graciously asks, rather than forces, us to come along for the ride.

Both actors give commanding and confident performances, their energy and obvious chemistry making the Atheneum feel substantially more intimate than it really is. Waters gets a chance to show off his transformative chops playing the array of odd bods that fill the small town and MacPherson’s dynamism keeps the whole thing moving forward in spite of the fairly cliched (and heavily signposted) plot. 

The production design is seamless and meticulously realised. Michael Holt helms a masterful team whose sound, set and lighting choices perfectly support the storytelling. Timing is essential in this work and there is not a weak link to be seen. Aesthetically, the Athenaeum is a great venue for such a work – opulent and ageing, it lends its own eeriness to the proceedings and allows the early breaking of the fourth wall to feel integrated and natural.   

Uncomplicated and beautifully executed, The Woman in Black is a delightful, if simple, adventure into classic gothic horror. 

Image Supplied


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