Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from novelist Susan Hill’s slice of Gothic, this is a twofold celebration: first, of the healing power of storytelling; second of the magic of rough theatre.
Arthur Kipps (Jamie Oxenbould) is in need of assistance. Haunted by things he experienced as a young man, he approaches an Actor for help. Not an obvious choice, it must be said.
Kipps has committed his recollections to paper. He hires the Actor (Garth Holcombe) to help him give it voice. Doing so, Kipps believes, will help exorcise a demon from his past – the eponymous female figure he encountered while working as a junior solicitor unscrambling the financial affairs of a wealthy hermit, Mrs Drablow.
After some hesitation on Kipps’ part, the rehearsals progress quickly – to the point where the Actor is Kipps, Kipps is everyone else, and the rehearsal room is suddenly plagued by visions of that same black-clad spectral figure.
Directed by the Ensemble Theatre’s Mark Kilmurry, it’s an attractive production (designed by Hugh O’Connor) that owes much to the clever illumination of Trudy Dalgleish. But the Ensemble isn’t an ideal space for The Woman in Black. In a way, the whole theatre needs to be part of the set. Here, though Oxenbould and Holcombe work from the aisles sometimes, the boundary between audience and stage seems impermeable.
The jump fright potential in the sudden appearances and vanishings of the ghostly apparition – something Sydney Theatre Company did so brilliantly in the first scene of Playing Beatie Bow – is undercut by our clear views of the performer (uncredited in the program, as is the tradition) getting into position, working their way through the curtains, or scuttling off the stage. As experience builds over the season, perhaps those elements will snap into better focus.
Recorded shrieks and screams compensate to some extent but you’d have to be an extraordinarily nervous Nelly to be much affected. The only one that jumped me had nothing to do with the mysterious woman and everything to do with a passing train.
But there’s something very pleasurable in watching two versatile performers harnessed to a play that showcases their storytelling skill and comic timing. Oxenbould is adept at sketching a variety of characters in voice, accent and physical bearing. Holcombe moves seamlessly from aloof Actor to totally involved character. A ripping yarn becomes a truthful act of theatre.
You probably won’t be terrified by The Woman in Black. But you will enjoy a story well told.