The Orchard Theatre in Dartford has shown perfect timing by booking The Woman in Black for Halloween week.
It’s genuinely spine tingling and properly frightening. But it’s also much more besides. It’s an object lesson in theatrical story telling making brilliant use of the theatre itself to become a key element in the play. At the same time it asks the audience to invest in the piece. Vital elements are there but have to be discovered and put together by us. Our imagination is explicitly called on to fill in the blanks left by a deceptively almost non-existent set. You would be forgiven for not realising this perfect piece of theatre was originally a book. Stephen Mallatrat was asked to adapt Susan Hill’s story to fit a very tight budget and this constraint inspired him to create a truly exceptional theatrical experience.
The pace is gentle to start with. And humorous. Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) begins to recount his ghostly tale in an empty theatre, rehearsing for when he is to perform it in front of friends and family. He is not, as is painfully apparent, a performer, so has employed the services of an actor (Daniel Easton) to coach him. Bumbling around and making many false starts, things suddenly drop into place when the actor decides to assume the role of the younger Kipps and has Kipps play all the other characters he meets on his journey to Eel Marsh House, where he is going to wind up the estate of the recently deceased owner, Alice Drablow.
We have train rides, a pony and trap, a graveyard, the fog enshrouded marshes, an eager and loyal dog. All created with a mixture of sound, lighting, a few props and, sometimes, with nothing more than our imagination.
Daniel Easton as the actor is warm and confident. We too feel confident in his presence, making it even more unnerving when he becomes frightened of what he is witnessing. As Arthur Kipps, Robert Goodale shows us a man whose confidence has been destroyed – a grim warning of what may become of our young, confident actor. But he also gets to play every other character Arthur meets, changing with a stoop here, a hat there, a walking stick or whatever. This helps establish that things are not necessarily what they seem and adds to the increasing and palpable tension in the theatre as the evening progresses. Yes, there are moments to make you jump, but there is much more as well. There’s a sense of foreboding and a feeling you’re seeing something genuinely spooky.
This is a remarkable piece of theatre. If you’re someone who’s not sure of straight plays and only thinks of seeing a big, sparkly musical, please do see this and find out just what brilliant theatre can do.
The Woman in Black is on tour and at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 2 November 2019.