The Woman in Black

by | Jun 25, 2024

By Natalie Ristovski

It is rare, outside of the fringe arts scene and a recent saturation of “immersive” horror experiences, to see dark tales of terror presented on the Australian stage. The horror genre itself, while enduring with a cult following since theatre began, has never been allowed out of the shadows and into the mainstream for long. The Japanese Kabuki theatricals of the 1600s and 18th century Paris’ Grand Guignol are perhaps some of the most enduring examples of darker stage offerings, but it has been a good half-century since anything of its ilk has enjoyed the same longevity.

Except for Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black.’ Adapted for the stage in 1987 by Stephen Mallatratt, the play is the second-longest running non-musical on the West End, enjoying 13,232 performances before finally closing in 2023.

A two-and a-bit hander, it begins with Arthur Kipps (played by Australian legend John Waters) securing the services of The Actor (Daniel MacPherson) to assist him in the telling of a personal ghost story that, Kipps claims, must be told so that he may be rid of its burden. What follows is akin to watching a Millennial trying to teach their Boomer father how to use a mobile phone, as The Actor patiently walks Kipps through the importance of showmanship when ‘putting on a performance’ for an audience. It is not until well into the first act that the actual plot finds its footing and rhythm, the disjointed stop-start of the first twenty or so minutes wrenching the viewer out of the story and back into the “present day” machinations of Kipps and his contracted tutor just as the tension has started to build.

One would think that such an unnecessarily wordy prologue would instantly condemn the production, yet despite almost mansplaining to the audience how two actors are going to portray multiple characters, and how the sparse set dressing will be utilised to represent everything from a horse and trap to a bed, the script never quite teeters over the edge into self-indulgence.

This, in large part, is due to the phenomenal pairing of Waters and MacPherson, both of whom have well earned their stripes in and outside of the Australian entertainment circuit. MacPherson is immediately affable and commanding as The Actor, seizing the audience and the stage with good-natured charm the moment his voice rings out from the stalls, and maintaining his hold on both throughout. Waters, as one would expect at this stage of his career, is theatrical gold – his ability to slip effortlessly and flawlessly from one character to another, weaving the story together seamlessly as a result, is a testament to his great talent and a pleasure to experience firsthand.

In this pair’s capable hands, a somewhat dated and lengthy script becomes a mesmerising and tension-filled tale that bounces the viewer between suffocating dread and charming well-timed humour. Waters’ and MacPherson’s interplay and obvious camaraderie alone are worth the price of the ticket.

The set is sparse but perfectly adequate for the task at hand – a costume rack, a wicker basket and a few chairs making up the bulk of staging. The use of lighting, scrims and well-placed draping of fabric give depth and dimension to the action, as well as supplying a myriad of opportunities for the shadow-play that is essential for a show such as this. It is a cleverly designed stage that complements the production and feeds the ever-building tension – one may often find themselves watching each dark corner for hints of the macabre.

Sound design was equally well thought out, the more subtle atmospheric sound-scaping supporting its cast in setting the scene, the louder thuds and shrieks playing their part in landing the jump-scares littered throughout. Unfortunately, quite a few sound cues were ill-timed or missed completely – which led to some of the most pivotal moments involving the titular character falling flat. This has become something of the norm at the Athenaeum Theatre – being the third production in as many months I have attended where the sound has been noticeably off. There has either been a gross decline in the skill level of Melbourne sound-technician talent, or someone needs to take a good look at the theatre’s wiring and sound equipment lest it become a running joke.

Touted as “the terrifying original,” The Woman in Black certainly delivers in its promise to scare. Masterfully drawing on horror tropes, it manages for the most part to skilfully carry viewers through its ghoulish machinations. The appearance of the Woman in Black herself is sparse and quite effective, though there were some odd choreographic choices that seemed hammy and out of place with the more subtle pacing of the script. Having your movie-of-the-week monster leaping out of a curtain with arms raised as if they were about to break into a rendition of Thriller is more likely to prompt laughs than screams, and there is a lot to be said for not moving about the stage as if it were a catwalk when trying to convince viewers that you are a ghost.

Overall, The Woman in Black is a solid production, and those who are willing to suspend disbelief and forgive a few dated directorial decisions will find themselves having a terrifyingly good time. The Australian tour, kicking off in April 2024 in Toowoomba and set to make its way across the country before its final leg in Sydney in August, is showing for only a limited season in Melbourne – horror aficionados and theatre lovers would do well to take heed and get in quickly before it is gone.

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