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Review: The Woman in Black at The Playhouse, QPAC

Review by Sarah Skubala

 

Susan Hill’s gothic horror novel, The Woman in Black, has continued to terrify audiences since it was first written in 1983. The novel, set in Edwardian England, was first adapted in 1987 by Stephen Mallatratt and premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough as their Christmas play on a very limited budget. It transferred to London two years later and became the second longest-running play on the West End after The Mousetrap. The 2006 Australian premiere of The Woman in Black saw John Waters in the role of Arthur Kipps, and he returns in the role alongside Daniel MacPherson in this restaging of the original production, directed by Robin Herford.

 

Now set in 1951, the play begins with an elderly man named Kipps standing in an empty theatre reading aloud from his manuscript. An ‘actor,’ whom he has hired to help him dramatise his story, enters almost as if by magic from the audience, and criticises Kipps for his expressionless delivery. After some discussion about the fundamentals of a good performance, they begin to re-enact the story over several sessions, stepping back in time thirty years, with the ‘actor’ portraying Kipps as a young man, and Kipps embodying all the other characters as well as the narrator.

 

What unfolds is a theatrical masterclass.

 

All the elements in The Woman in Black work together to create a suspenseful mood that starts as a slow burn but is perfectly paced with a payoff at the end. Both John Waters and Daniel MacPherson give outstanding performances. Waters adeptly transitions between multiple characters, effortlessly using various regional accents. MacPherson masterfully captures both the charm of the 'actor' and the escalating terror experienced by protagonist Kipps as his story unfolds.

 

In theory, this play is a two-hander, with the actress portraying the Woman in Black also remaining a ghost. She is completely uncredited in the program and only appears as a fleeting spectre, even in the bows, a clever creative choice. But it is her work that is truly spine-chilling and will stay with you well after the play ends.  

 

Kevin Sleep's lighting design is phenomenal and his work in this production should be required viewing for anyone seeking a career in the field. Michael Holt created an eerie set using a giant, dirty grey theatre curtain which is transformed by the lighting choices. The sound design, by Rod Mead and Sebastian Frost, complements the storytelling and adds all the suspenseful touches, from the clip-clop of horses' hooves to the ominous rumble of a train, the rhythmic sounds of a rocking chair, and the cries of terror. Every element enriches the storytelling, enveloping viewers in a world of immersive dread. The combined efforts of the cast and the production team, through an almost Brechtian-like set, successfully transports the audience back in time, chilling them to the core with the classic conventions of storytelling.

 

The opening night audience was enthusiastic, and the performance received a well-earned standing ovation. Fans of ghost stories and excellent theatre should not miss this limited season in Brisbane before it embarks on its national tour.


Image Credit: Justin Nicholas

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