This is a pretty extraordinary theatrical experience. The Woman in Black could reasonably be described as a postmodern ghost story. There is nothing secretive or hidden about this tale. Presented as a play-within-a-play it is essentially a two-hander. Arthur Kipps has a story to tell and he seeks the help of a theatre professional in telling the story. Arthur is happy that his story be told unadorned; the actor is keen that sound effects be used to reduce the wordiness and to help the audience experience the story.
So it is emphasised from the outset: this is not real, we are being tricked, can you still believe this story? And, of course, we do still believe it and that is the daring of this production. Most of us don’t believe in ghosts and this is the challenge for anyone telling a story of the supernatural – how can the audience be persuaded to attend to what they know to be nonsense?
Despite the fact that all the elements of horror are clearly and boldly signposted – and all the horror clichés are gleefully deployed – we scream shrilly when bidden. This sort of mass reaction is critical to live comedy of course and canned laughter is a poor substitute, so why does this mass hysteria in response to the fearful seem odd then?
Malcolm James (Kipps ) and Matt Connor (the actor) are both excellent but the sound (Gareth Owen) and lighting (Kevin Sleep) are critical to the success of the production. Maybe the real stars of the night were those audience members who screamed on every cue – without them the entertainment would have been much diminished.
Woman in Blackcan be seen at Buxton Opera House until June 2o. Go to http://www.buxtonoperahouse.org.uk for tickets.
By Keith Savage