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The Woman in Black - A Hauntingly Good Show

The Woman in Black. Mark Hawkins. Photo by Mark Douet.

The Woman in Black, Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 4 May.

Review by Annette Kinsella.

It’s hard to know what more can be said about The Woman In Black. Written by Coventry’s own Susan Hill, the plot is a ghost story bingo card– the malevolent wronged woman, the crumbling haunted house, the abandoned child, the fatal coach crash into icy marshland.

As far as the horror genre goes, Hill pulled out more stops than an inner-city lollipop lady playing on a old-style pub fruit machine. Having studied the novel in my own school days, and then revisiting it again a few years ago when my son was doing GCSEs, when it came to the eponymous ashen-faced woman, I thought I knew it all.

Until, that is, I saw the latest production at the Belgrade Theatre. Starring Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins, the show relocated the action from Hill’s original 19th century east of England setting to the confines of the theatre itself. It becomes a story within a story, as we see solicitor Arthur Kipps (James) relate his chilling tale to the unnamed actor (Hawkins) in a bid to rid himself of demons.

Mark Hawkins and Malcolm James. Photo by Mark Douet.

This refocus is a nifty narrative device – rather than watching the action play out on the stage, the audience is cast as an integral part of the story, drawn into the show by dint of their own imagination. The immersive experience is reinforced by director Stephen Mellatratt’s  innovative and atmospheric staging – actors appear from the back of the theatre, skeins of dry ice mist drifts over the stalls, an unseen sound technician is hailed in the gods.

The sparse use of props is equally thoughtful – a wicker hamper is transformed into a pony and trap, a railway carriage and a lawyer’s desk, forcing the audience to actively enter the scenes created by the actors.

A show that is not for the faint-hearted. Photo by Mark Douet.

Similarly impressive was the standard of acting - James shone as the haunted Kipps, giving an almost palpable sense of grief and loss which permeates even the comedic scenes in Act 1. Meanwhile Hawkins played the part of the overconfident actor to perfection, condescending at first but stricken as he is drawn unwillingly into Kipps’ experience. And the star of the show is the unnamed, uncredited Woman In Black herself – her silent, fleeting appearances prompted louder screams from the audience than the queue for The Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Overall, this show is not for the fainthearted. But if you’re after a rollicking good ghost story with more jumps than a kangaroo on a pogo stick, it’s not to be missed. If that’s you, book your ticket now. And sleep tight - don’t have nightmares.


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