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Sydney review - The Woman in Black: a gripping ghost story

By Paul Kiely



The Woman in Black

By Susan Hill

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt

Directed by Mark Kilmurry

An Ensemble Theatre Production

Ensemble Theatre

78 McDougall Street

Kirribilli


Season: 11 June – 24 July 2021. Bookings: https://ensemble.com.au

Duration: 2 hours including interval


The Woman in Black has all the hallmarks of a gripping ghost story – an eery, deserted mansion, thick nightly fog, tragic fatal accidents, tremoring townspeople and a sceptical, unassuming victim. In addition, a haunting apparition appears as a precursor to horrific events.

Set in the early twentieth century in a coastal English village, The Woman in Black is the tale of Arthur Kipps (Jamie Oxenbould), a man cursed by an experience many years prior. He is eager to tell his story as a way of clearing his mind of the frightening, recurring thoughts.

With the aid of an actor (Garth Holcombe) he attempts to perform his story so that his audience will be engaged and interested. Whilst trying to get into the spirit of his character, the actor tells Kipps “I’ll make an Irving of you yet”. No doubt a reference to Sir Henry Irving, the acclaimed nineteenth century English actor.

As a young lawyer, Kipps is sent from his London office to attend the funeral of client Alice Drablow and oversee her Estate.

Despite warnings from locals of strange happenings, Kipps attends the isolated Eel Marsh House for what he hopes will be a couple of days work going through her financial papers. Eel Marsh House is set on a coastal bluff, cut off each night as the tide rises. So, there is no escaping the hauntings of its ghostly occupant.

Through conversations with the townsfolk and discoveries he makes within Eel Marsh House, Kipps learns of the Drablow family secrets. Unspoken matters concerning the death of her nephew Nathaniel have left a lasting fear within the town of Crythin Gifford. It is believed that the ghost of Nathaniel’s mother, Jennet Humfrye appears in black, a warning that a tragedy is imminent.

The Woman in Black is a theatrical masterpiece. I found it enthralling, captivating and suspenseful. As an audience member, I cannot ask for more.

Its success is down to six factors.

Firstly, the story by Susan Hill is spellbinding and the stage adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt is first class. Wonderful word pictures and vivid imagery seduce the listener to places warm and cosy and then dark and eery. We are asked to imagine Christmas Eve in London, children asleep upstairs, presents under the tree and the smell of orange and cloves mixing with wood smoke. Later, in contrast, we are amid the marshes in the dead of night at Eel Marsh House in the thickest sea fret (fog) as the carriage driver’s dog ‘Spider’ struggles in quicksand.

The second factor is Mark Kilmurry’s penchant for outstanding direction. Aided by his creatives and actors, Kilmurry touches our senses beyond the visual and auditory. After all, a scary story needs to feel spooky.

The third and fourth reason for success are the actors Garth Holcombe and Jamie Oxenbould. What a winning combination of talent. Holcombe plays the actor, who plays the young Kipps, capturing the eagerness of youth and displaying the panic of fear. Oxenbould demonstrates his great versatility, playing the old Kipps, London solicitor Bentley and the tottering carriage driver, amongst others.

Lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish is the fifth reason The Woman in Black a sensation. When Kilmurry demands ‘eery’ and ‘creepy’, Dalgleish attends to the task with relish, creating lighting effects in collusion with the set. Whether it is a flickering fireplace or a single candle flame, lighting stood out in this production.

The sixth winning element is Sound Designer Michael Waters. His ability to recreate the sounds of early twentieth century life added substantially to the overall enjoyment.

Perhaps a seventh reason is the Woman in Black herself. Typical of most apparitions, she did not materialise to audience applause at curtain call, but her appearances were noted with unease!

By the way, no dog was harmed in the production of this show.