Review: The Woman in Black, New Theatre, Cardiff

Kate Griffin witnesses “an absolute masterpiece of timing and tension,” as Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black takes to the stage of Cardiff’s New Theatre.

Arthur Kipps has a story to tell. But sometimes the things that affect you deeply are the hardest to talk about. So, he hires a young actor to critique his wooden delivery and ultimately take over the tale. We watch events unfold as a young Arthur unwittingly stumbles into a terrifying ordeal.

The Woman in Black gives us the classic set-up of a young innocent alone in an eerie old mansion. The geography of the setting is somewhat vague, but we know it is somewhere rural and a long train ride north of London. (The play is based on the 1983 novel by Yorkshire-born Susan Hill and was first performed in Scarborough.)

Eel House, just to make things properly creepy, is intermittently cut off from civilisation by the changing tides and the befuddling mist of the marshes. Arthur’s task is to sort through a reclusive old widow’s paperwork, but his cheerful, practical approach is rattled as time wears on. As he repeats “I don’t believe in ghosts!” we wonder exactly who he is trying to convince.

The play is an absolute masterpiece of timing and tension. The build-up of dread is suddenly pierced by lightning flashes of pure terror. There were many moments where a large part of the audience shrieked in fear and drowned out the next few lines as we muttered and chuckled to calm ourselves.

The Woman in Black is the second-longest play in the history of the West End (not counting musicals), after the legendary Mousetrap. It’s easy to see why. It makes an explicit virtue of the minimal staging, with the young actor telling a sceptical old Kipps that of course a wicker basket can stand in for a pony and trap. (The same basket becomes a bed, a repository of legal documents and various other things.) The magic ingredient that keeps transforming this mundane object is of course the imagination of the audience. And this is also what The Woman in Black uses to scare the living daylights out of us.

It’s hard to believe that a play can be this enthralling and frightening with just two actors. Malcolm James plays the present-day Arthur Kipps, and also fills in as all the supporting characters with a coat-change or two. Mark Hawkins plays the young Arthur – or, rather, he plays the actor playing him. This framing device helps to pace the story, and it also supplies one final terrifying twist.

This is one of the most genuinely frightening plays I’ve ever seen live, but it is also entirely absorbing. Of course, those of a truly nervous disposition should stay away. But for many of us, a little bit of heart-stopping fear can make for a thoroughly entertaining experience.

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