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The Woman in Black at Theatre Royal Brighton | Review

The Woman In Black is one of those very rare tales: a ghost story that works on stage and is totally engrossing!

The Woman in Black 2023. Photo by Mark Douet.
MALCOLM JAMES – Arthur Kipps and MARK HAWKINS – The Actor. The Woman in Black 2023. Photo by Mark Douet.

The play has its origins in Scarborough, where the novelist Susan Hill was born. Looking for an inexpensive production for Christmas 1987, the theatre director, who still rehearses every new cast, Robin Herford, asked one of the actors at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-round, Stephen Mallatratt, to adapt it for two actors. The result, as they say, is history, because the play became the second longest-running in West End history (after “The Mousetrap”!) running at the Fortune Theatre for many years.

One might imagine that a play that has been almost continually performed for 37 years, using the same production, might look “tired” by this time, whereas in fact, the opposite is true!

Without giving away the plot the action takes place on the stage of the Theatre Royal Brighton where Arthur Kipps, a retired solicitor, has hired both the theatre and an actor to rehearse telling a strange story to his family and close friends, in the hope that recounting it to others will help him to live with it.

Malcolm James is quite superb as Kipps, at first convincing us that he is a very poor actor, but soon playing many roles within the story. He has a very charismatic face that seems to draw you in and hang on every word.

Mark Hawkins is equally successful as ‘The Actor’, gradually drawing the story out of Kipps and, being much younger than him, developing a believable, contrasting role. Both use their voices to great effect, Hawkins’ voice being higher in pitch than James’ and more clipped. Together they demonstrate tremendous energy, whether that is quickly moving furniture around the stage to create, for example, a railway compartment or reacting to a surprising situation, of which there are many! The story is told with an element of humour, which helps to accent those moments which suddenly occur and which are certainly NOT funny! Both also seem to know instinctively how to pace the play so that we, the audience, are continually involved; even with a theatre that contained several school groups, there was total silence in the auditorium: you could have heard the proverbial pin drop so great was the concentration.

Much of the success of this play is due not only to Stephen Mallatratt but also to Robin Herford whose direction is spot on. He allows the actors to tell the story simply yet effectively with a clear sense of what works and how to draw an audience in and keep them on the edge of their seats – both actors and audience are allowed to relax when Herford wants them to, but that is only to accentuate the next climax!!

Michael Holt designed the deceptively simple, ‘tatty’ set, very imaginative lighting was by Kevin Sleep with sound design by Sebastian Frost and Rod Mead, always creating and sustaining the different moods, whether that be a horse and trap dash over the salt marshes or a ghostly fog… Ishbel Cumming was responsible for Vision Productions and greatly aided the audience’s suspension of belief.

Whether or not you have seen this play before, let alone read the novel or seen the movie, I do urge you to visit Theatre Royal Brighton this week (Theatre Royal Glasgow in March and Milton Keynes in April). The venue has even got in on the act by adjusting the heating so that you will have a suitably “chilling” evening, all adding to the enjoyment!! Very highly recommended!! Just Go!!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

The legendary production of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story The Woman In Black returns to Theatre Royal Brighton direct from London’s West End, after an incredible 33-year run at the Fortune Theatre.

The Woman in Black brilliantly delivers atmosphere, illusion and horror! Experience the thrill and excitement of this critically-acclaimed international theatre event that has been seen by over 7 million people worldwide, and continues to delight and terrify audiences of all generations.

Obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spectre of a Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul.

The Woman in Black at Theatre Royal Brighton Tue 27 Feb – Sat 2 Mar 2024.

View all shows booking now at Theatre Royal Brighton

Theatre Royal Glasgow
Tue 26 Mar – Sat 30 Mar 2024

Milton Keynes Theatre
Tue 2 Apr – Sat 6 Apr 2024

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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