The Woman In Black: Reviews

This page presents several reviews from the world premiere of The Woman in Black at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, which are held in archive.

Terror By The Sea by Eric Shorter
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At Alan Ayckbourn's snug theatre-by-the sea at Scarborough, there is usually nothing to fear. It is the cosiest of reps. And now that he is more or less back in residence as artistic director after his acclaimed stint at the National, the Yorkshire playhouse named after its founder, Stephen Joseph, one of the pioneers of theatre-in-the-round in Britain, would seem to be itself again. But it isn't. Far from it.
Instead of a pantomime or a work by Ayckbourn himself or an older master like Ben Travers or J.B. Priestley, the Christmas production is not only acted in a specially rigged-up 'studio' theatre but is designed to send shivers down the spine.
The Woman In Black is no comedy-thriller but an out-and-out attempt to put the wind up its audience and, as far as I'm concerned, it does just that.
Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of the book by Susan Hill achieves its spooky atmosphere in such a theatrical way that at the end one is glad to get away from a seemingly haunted hall. People like myself who wouldn't usually admit to fearing ghosts are left wondering if the play's supernatural solicitings can have been altogether faked.
In the novel, a Victorian solicitor straightforwardly relates his weird experiences while dealing with the estate of an elderly woman client who has just died. But the stage demands action, not just description. So Mr Mallatratt has chosen to show the events in flashback. The shocked young lawyer is trying to exorcise what he believes to be a curse, cast over him and his family since his official inquiries into, and unofficial sightings of, the woman of the title.
If he can re-enact his experiences when he visited that coastal widow's dank and far-flung habitation, with its sinking sands and sounds of screaming children in crashing pony carts, he hopes he will somehow exorcise the spirit which has apparently been exacting a kind of vengeance upon him.
Hence his engagement of a highly professional and sceptical actor to help him to dramatise his recollections in this hired hall where we, the audience, find ourselves sitting. Hence also the fun of watching a diffident and far from actorly fellow being tutored in theatrical ways in order to be able to "play back" his supposedly incredible adventures before relatives in this very hall.
What adds to the feeling of something extra-sensory in the air is the way the actors (and their occasional non-speaking spectral visitor) use the aisle of the fit-up theatre. They summon up the scene with the most elementary props. And Michael Holt's decor, which can dissolve from a cemetery into a mid-Victorian nursery, untouched since a child's death 60 years earlier, strikes an awe of its own.
As we applaud the actors Jon Strickland (solicitor) and Dominic Letts (actor) for having tampered so plausibly with the occult, the dark lady of their dabblings takes a distant, hazy bow upstage. Her name does not appear in the programme: another stylish touch in Robin Herford's chilling production.
(Daily Telegraph, 14 December 1987)

Ghost Story a Real Spine Chiller by Jeannie Swales
Having read Susan Hill's macabre tale
The Woman in Black several times, I thought the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round's new adaptation of it couldn't possibly rock my composure one little bit.
But at times, the skin on the back of my neck positively crawled up onto my skull.
The Woman in Black is a ghost story in the finest traditions. Adaptor Stephen Mallatratt has wisely relied heavily upon the power of suggestion to achieve his effect - with more than a little help from an excellent company. The play is carried by just two actors - Jon Strickland and Dominic Letts. Between them, these two skilled performers weave an atmosphere of terror which is almost palpable.
Strong direction from Robin Herford keeps a piece which could easily slide into the realms of Victorian-style melodrama in the right tracks. A starkly dramatic set from Michael Holt and Mick Thomas's eerie lighting do much to stimulate that most powerful of fear-indusers, the imagination. And Jackie Staines has created some occasionally quite spine-chilling sound effects.
Even if you have read the book, Stephen Mallatratt's ingenious use of a rather clever theatrical device will keep you on the edge of your seat until the end - where you will find a new, and intriguing, twist to the tale.
Only the most hard-nosed and hard-hearted could fail to get a thrill from it.
(Scarborough Evening News, 14 December 1987)

The Woman in Black by Jeremy Kingston
Christmas is the season for ghost stories and though the fashion for presenting them in the theatre has largely faded - victim of horror films and television - there is nothing to surpass the sudden shriek rending the air from somewhere you cannot quite place. This or that side of the stage was it? You can scarcely see for the shadows and that door, was it not locked a moment since, yes now it is slowly opening, slowly revealing...
Yes, that is the way to pass a mid-winter evening. And this full length play by Stephen Mallatratt, adapted from the book by Susan Hill, contains such classically chilling ingredients as the lonely house on the sea's edge, approachable only at low tide on the causeway through the marshes. It has sea mists that roll up without warning, townsfolk too scared to talk, gravestones, old documents and a hero who will not take shrieks for an answer but noses onward to get to the heart of the mystery.
Mallatratt has ingeniously seized on the stricken hero's need to record his experiences at Eel Marsh House; and he turns this into the wish to tell it to his family face to face. The first scene brings Jon Strickland's haunted victim, Mr Kipps, to the stage of a small theatre where a self-assured actor (Dominic Letts) prepares to give him hints on delivery.
Gradually we are eased into watching the enactment, with Letts taking over the role of Kipps when young, and Strickland playing the agitated characters he meets. The director, Robin Herford, animates the scene in a variety of ways: appealing to our imagination to picture the stage as the island, the aisle the causeway; straight naturalistic detail of a child's nursery appearing where there were formerly shrouded gravestones; and simplest of all, changing our feelings for the scene by making an actor turn and face another way.
Too many climaxes are cut off with a blackout, dissipating the tension - echoing a tendency in the book - but the performers generate the required atmosphere of alarm, especially when Strickland's hangdog features imply unspeakable dread. And the shrieks are piercing.
(The Times, 21 December 1987)

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