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The Woman in Black | Buxton Opera House

The tale of The Woman in Black haunts the stage with chilling sound design and shifting shadows, creating something unsettling and nightmarish. Dancing slowly between elements of reality and performance, the production plays into the story-telling aspect of a ghost story through its meta-theatricality.

It is a performance within a performance, as the ‘real’ Mr Kipps (Malcolm James), receives acting lessons from The Actor (Mark Hawkins), and performs alongside him in the dramatisation of his manuscript (Mr Kipps playing all secondary characters and The Actor playing Mr Kipps). The manuscript details the visions and horrific events that followed his business trip to a dead woman’s house many years ago. Through telling his story, he believes he will be able to finally escape his entrapment in the Woman in Black’s suffocating web.

This balance between fiction and ‘reality’ sometimes seemed a little jarring; I felt that the device of a play-within-a-play only became truly necessary at the end of the piece, and sometimes worked in detriment to the build-up of tension within the main horror story. Act two was a lot stronger in this regard: it focused more on the ghost story than on the play-within-a-play exposition and development, increasing the apprehension and electrified tension of the audience.

This visceral, sharp tension was nursed in a silence which morphed into frightened shrieks, hums of anxiety, and nervous laughter. The lighting, sound design and Robin Herford’s direction all contribute to this alive anticipation, an atmosphere I’ve never experienced before but is necessary here; the play depends heavily on silence, juxtaposed against the abruptness of the ghostly high-pitched screams. Like metal ringing, the hum of the audience’s shock becomes a dance, as bodies jump and hands move to cover mouths or feel racing heartbeats.

The character of the sound technician is an unseen, ambiguous entity, who is viewed by the other characters from below. This illustration of power – Mr Kipps’ play only comes to life with the miracle that is ‘recorded sound’ - mirrors Sebastian Frost’s control of the real play’s sound design, which has a significant impact on its tone and genre. Similarly, shadows and flickering lights are critical to its atmosphere: Kevin Sleep’s lighting design is characterised by coloured lights and dark, concealed corners. In one scene, The Actor, as he plays Mr Kipps, sleeps in almost darkness. Alongside the repeated, ghostly sounds, this night-time scene feels real and consuming.

The horror of the play, adapted from Susan Hill’s book, can hardly be said to be subtle. But as harsh red lines and chilling screams transform a wooden door into something haunting and eerie, it is clear that effective lighting, sound and the simplicity of Michael Holt’s gauze curtains and veiled sets, can be very persuasive. While I struggled with the necessity of the dual narrative (or, at least, the swathe of details that accompanied the play-within-a-play, for example the idea that the real Mr Kipps was meant to be a deficient actor and yet managed to excel within the span of a few minutes), I think it is an undoubtedly well-made production. Haunting, dark, and unsettlingly tense, I am grateful to leave The Woman in Black behind - I hope she won’t follow me.

The Woman in Black will play at the Buxton Opera House until Saturday 7th October, and will continue to tour the UK. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Mark Douet


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