Picks will now be accompanied by a cover photo of the piece. Enjoy!
I have found one major problem in writing reviews for plays: it’s a fast-changing market. The industry moves quickly, and if you don’t review the play in time for people to see it, a part of the review dies then and there.
I believe there are two reasons to read a review. One, it gives you an idea of the piece, either recommending or not recommending you to view it (which is different to it being told whether it is good or bad) and two is to entertain the reader long enough for them to finish the review. Now you know why I have some sort of quirky introduction to each of my posts! Whether they actually entertain you, that’s another question.
In truth, I would like to say that my Picks are fun and enjoyable to read, but I believe I’ve lost that element recently. It’s hard to make your voice speak through text, but going back to the former reason, I wouldn’t feel right reviewing a play that you can’t see.
Last week, I saw two plays performed. One at the Malvern Theatre, performing World War One drama Lottie’s War, following Lottie living in German-occupied Guernsey with a Nazi General, and The Canary Girls performed in my local theatre: The Courtyard, Hereford. This play was also set in World War One, following the women of ROF Rotherwas filling (munitions) factory in Hereford. I promise you, I’m not doing History A-Level!
Unfortunately, these plays are both no longer running, so I am unable to give a real opinion on them. I had to rack my brain for a play that I had seen that was still running, and then this came to mind. Why it came to mind? It has been running for twenty-five years.
The Woman in Black is the creative adaption of the 1983 horror novella written by Susan Hill. It was adapted into a play, premiering in 1987 and opening two years later in the Fortune Theatre, London, where it remains to this day. The tale follows solicitor Arthur Kipps, now old and retired, who comes to a young nameless actor to help him tell his story. Actor accepts and begins to show him how to act out his story as a play, taking the role of Kipps as the real Kipps fills in for all the other roles. In effect, it stays true to the book, but adds the extra level of “a play within a play”.
The actual story tells of Mr Kipps going to Eel Marsh House to settle the affairs of the late Mrs Drablow. There, he finds the Women in Black haunting the house and the nearby town, being a ghost of Mrs Drablow’s sister, who has a nasty side-effect if seen.
I’ve been to see this play twice now with a year interval between the two viewings. The second one actually helped me to concentrate on the subtle details of the play more without curling up into my hoodie and shaking in terror like I did when I first watched the play.
Before I go on, there is a twist at the end of the play, which is integrated into the whole play and outside the play. I won’t say what the twist is, but it will be hard not to give hints and pointers, so if you really want to walk into this play blind, I would stop reading. Go make a cup of tea and enjoy yourself with the film for a while (and no, the film does not spoil the play as they have different endings).
The main thing that you got to remember is that there are only two actors. That’s what really makes the magic and terror of the play. If you look on the programme and website, there are only two actors accredited. Both are excellent in their own right.
We are first introduced to Old Kipps by Stuart Fox. While playing as Old Kipps, he is a withdrawn, dull and frail, but as he starts to multi-role, he gives us a spectrum of skills, from being a serious Keckwick, who drives Young Kipps to and from the house, to a fairly bright Mr Daily, who becomes Kipps’ friend during the course of the play. Gwynfor Jones stars as Actor and Young Kipps. He wakes up the audience and brings the story to life through his acting skill. While only multi-rolling between Kipps and Actor (who are technically the same person) you really feel like you are in his position, as he explores the creepy Eel Marsh House alone, the picture of true fear.
The two actors gel very well together. You wouldn’t think it, but they actually pull off some very clever comedic sequences together, as to relax the audience at the beginning. The play realises your initial thoughts when entering the theatre are “this is going to be so scary” and they take that into account, drawing you into the play quite neatly, making you forget all precognitions of the play that you may have.
The stage is in three parts, each part separated from each other by gauzes. The front part is a typical stage, where most of the acting takes place, as it doubles up to be a carriage of a train, an office, and a warm inn, with Actor explaining to Old Kipps that he should use his imagination. The middle part is opened to as a graveyard next to Eel Marsh House, but doubles up to be a nusery-room with a rocking-chair. Writing this now, I get shivers up my spine when I think about that chair. The final section at the back is stairs that lead to the second floor of the house.
The play has some interesting ideas. Using surround sound, they are able to simulate background noises of different scenes, like a busy London street or the country-side. However, some sound is used on stage… that chair has become iconic in my mind. It helps to show us what is real and what is not, which adds to the twist at the end. The lighting as well is very interesting. Not only do we get extremely dark lighting and gobos to project a holy cross or the outlines of the house on stage, but pin-lights are used to hit the actors’ faces exactly, and more basic but powerful lighting choices like a torch and matches give a claustrophobic feel and makes you squirm in your seat.
Everything is timed to a tee. Comedy is very funny, and scares hit you when you least expect it. The actors really do know the audience’s feelings and expectations, and use it to their advantage to make their acting effective.
There aren’t really any bad things to point out. There is one scene on the marsh where they use smoke machines to such an extent that it felt like I was in a volcano. I know they wanted to make it look like I couldn’t see in front of me, and make me feel claustrophobic, so then I would look around and be reminded that I was in a theatre watching a play. It broke the realism for a minute. Other than that nit-pick, there’s nothing else.
To wrap up quickly, The Woman in Black is an amazing adaptation of the novel, sticking to the book so far that they actually make it the manuscript that they are acting out. It lulls you in at a leisurely and enjoyable pace, before slowly and subtly dropping you into a world of the supernatural that you can’t escape. Scary, tense and entertaining, The Woman in Black is a must-see piece of art that will keep you on the edge, and the back of your seat, whether you’re lapping up the dialogue or shying away in terror.
If you are interested in seeing this play, go to http://www.thewomaninblack.com/. It is currently touring for it’s 25th Anniversary. Dates and timings are all on the website, as well as a Gallery and game to keep you entertained.
See you all Sunday!