Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 gothic horror novel, The Woman in Black follows bright young solicitor Arthur Kipps, assigned to manage the estate of a recently deceased widow, Alice Drablow, in the north of England.

At the isolated Eel Marsh House, Kipps is haunted by a local spectre, a woman dressed in black, with tragic consequences.

The book was adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987 and is the second-longest running play on the West End, behind Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap.

This touring production is directed by Robin Herford, who commissioned the initial adaptation from Mallatratt at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and has been involved with the show since its inception.

John Waters and Daniel MacPherson in The Woman in Black Photo © Justin Nicholas

The stage adaptation condenses Hill’s novel into a dynamic two-hander: the audience meets Kipps as an old man who has hired an actor to help him tell his story, hoping to exorcise the haunting experiences of his past. Kipps and The Actor rehearse, with The Actor playing a young Kipps and Kipps himself playing all the other characters. With this meta-theatrical framing, the audience sees how distressed Kipps is by these events, even decades later.

The Woman in Black clearly establishes the play-within-a-play convention and engages the audience’s imagination with basic props in the early scenes. Comedy is injected in similar ways and, although these humorous diversions slow the pace, they do effectively diffuse the ever-building tension. Detailed lyrical descriptions of the setting are narrated within the play, occasionally assisted by simple projected images, and these effectively conjure the eerie and striking Eel Marsh House and its surroundings.

John Waters in The Woman in Black Photo © Justin Nicholas

An apron at the front of the stage is traversed by the characters to maintain movement and imply distance. Both actors move through the aisles at different times, bringing the audience into the atmosphere and experience of the production.

John Waters (Kipps) and Daniel MacPherson (The Actor) have excellent onstage chemistry in comedy and tragedy. Waters delivers a roster of distinct characters from the small market town of Crythin Gifford, as well as the harried older Kipps and his (initially) amateur acting, although accents sometimes took a few lines to find consistency.

Playign The Actor and the young Kipps, MacPherson performs with high enthusiasm and crisp diction.

Both are very well supported by design (Michael Holt), lighting (Kevin Sleep) and sound (Sebastian Frost, with original sound design by Rod Mead). These elements integral to the build and release of tension, evoking the flickering shadows of a fireside ghost story as much as the darkened staircase of a horror movie, although the frights sometimes rely on the sound or lighting to carry them.

Daniel MacPherson in The Woman in Black Photo © Justin Nicholas

Sepia-toned lighting transports the audience into Kipps’ story, distinguishing between the action of the past and the actors of the present, and carefully choreographed use of handheld lights adds to the spine-tingling suspense.

The many layers of Holt’s set are slowly unveiled and lighting is fundamental to the thrill of these reveals, as well as to the appearances of the spectral Woman in Black.

Recorded sound is established as a “modern marvel” by The Actor and recordings form a key part of the setting and storytelling, from the click of shoes on floorboards to screams and the rattle of a pony and trap.

The Woman in Black makes impressive use of light and sound but also their absence, allowing the audience to sit in the growing anticipation of a dark, silent theatre before releasing them with a new revelation or a sudden scare.

The Woman in Black is a testament to the power of imagination – in fear and in live theatre.

The Woman in Black plays at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC, until 11 May, before touring to Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong, Newcastle, and Sydney.

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