By Marty Mulrooney
Ever since a recent trip to Edinburgh, a city steeped in rich paranormal legend, I have had a newfound interest in ghost stories. I had also heard that The Woman In Black was one of the best (and scariest) ghost stories to be performed live on stage, so I was pretty excited to be heading to the theatre to see it on a cold Friday evening, the night after my birthday no less.
I must first begin my review by saying that the Lowry Theatre in Salford Quays is truly a triumph of modern architecture, immediately taking you back upon entry with its rich abundance of smooth curved ceilings and labyrinth-like descending passageways.
Once seated, the stage was easily viewable (then again I was only four rows back), the seats comfortable and the actual feeling of the room itself wonderfully cosy; the buzz created by the overhanging upper circles combined with the relative slenderness of the room all coming together to convey a true sense of intimacy.
It was within this intimate setting that actor Robert Demeger emerged upon the stage in character as Mr Kipps to begin the play. Mumbling and droning, his initial delivery is lacklustre at best. This is of course intentional on his part, as we are then quickly introduced to the second character (known only as The Actor) played with Shakespearean relish by Peter Bramhill.
It is with both characters on stage (this is essentially a two-man play) that the central premise is revealed. The older Mr Kipps has a story to tell, a real ghost story that has haunted him for years. Initially planning to simply read the story out loud, The Actor soon convinces him that the correct approach would be to adapt it as a play.
Therefore, The Actor will play the young Mr Kipps, with Mr Kipps himself portraying the various other characters dotted throughout the story, drawing on his past memories to give a true to life recollection. This may sound slightly complex, but the beauty of this stage play is that the way it is executed makes it anything but.
It is one of the great pleasures of the play to see the initially dubious Mr Kipps (“I’m no Irving”) blossom as he gets into the various roles, reliving his past. This is mirrored beautifully with The Actor’s (“We’ll make an Irving of you yet!”) realisation, through re-enactment of past events, of the true horror of the tale.
Shown as if rehearsing the play in an empty theatre, the production is very cut back, and it works wonderfully. Imagination is the key here, filling in the gaps for a horse and carriage or a murky marshland, props limited to a small hamper and basic costumes. To explain the intricacies of the ghost story itself would be to ruin the experience somewhat, but I can reveal that The Woman In Black makes several memorable (and scary) appearances, after the death of an old widow for whom Mr Kipps legally represents… The widow’s house is often cut off from the mainland by the sea, and it is here Mr Kipps must travel to sort through her many bundles of paperwork. Never has a simple wooden door on stage felt so ominous and threatening.
I must further emphasise what a fantastic job playwright Stephen Mallatratt (who sadly passed away in 2004) has done of adapting Susan Hill’s classic ghost story for the theatre. The character of The Actor and the idea of the events presented as a rehearsed play is a masterstroke of adaptation that drags the audience straight into a tragic tale of loss, revenge and horror. If adapted directly from the book I firmly believe it would lose much of its impact and appeal; the changes Mr Mallatratt implements are inspired and work perfectly on stage.
Sound and lighting are strong tools throughout, but the strongest assets of the whole production are Robert Demeger and Peter Bramhill as Mr Kipps and The Actor respectively. Their acting runs the whole gamut of human emotion, from unbridled joy to absolute horror: it becomes hypnotic to watch as the story unfolds through them. They elevate The Woman In Black to new levels of audience involvement and storytelling authenticity with breathtaking ease.
I have handed out several perfect scores recently whilst writing for AMO, something I do not take lightly at all. Yet I am delighted to be able to do so once more. The Woman In Black is clear proof that a good story with passionate actors is all you need to become enthralled as an audience member: your imagination can easily do the rest. A sometimes funny, often scary, unbeatable night at the theatre, The Woman In Black comes highly recommended by Alternative Magazine Online.
10 OUT OF 10
UK Tour Information: http://www.thewomaninblack.com/uktour.html