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The Woman in Black: Entertainment with goosebumps!

by | Feb 25, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

publicity still for The Woman in Black

Bernard Cuffling in a publicity still for The Woman in Black
(Photo by Bill Allman)

The Woman in Black is a good ol’ yarn and I am for that.

On one level, Stephen Mallatratt’s script, which he adapted from Dame Susan Hill’s novel, is a straight-up ghost story — and it scared the bejeezus out of me a couple of times. (Fellow critic Jo Ledingham, who was sitting beside me, said she felt my chair lurch.)

Mallatratt’s treatment is also metatheatrical — it’s about theatre itself — which is a clever strategy. In Hill’s 1983 novel, a character named Arthur Kipps tells the reader about a terrifying series of encounters he had at the ever so isolated — and haunted — Eel Marsh House on the Yorkshire coast. But, in Mallatratt’s version, Kipps has hired an actor to help him tell his story: he wants to exorcise his trauma, to “get it out”. And their rehearsal for the telling Kipps plans to share with his relatives quickly turns into a full production complete with lighting and sound cues.

To be clear, there is virtually no thematic content here, no ideas to ponder once you’ve left the theatre. And, if you’re paying attention, there aren’t a lot of surprises in the plot: as soon as one of the peripheral characters is mentioned, you know they’re doomed, so the “big revelation” at the end of Act 2 hardly comes as a surprise. But that barely matters; getting to the inevitable conclusion is still fun: it comes complete with sudden cues that were, for me, blood curdling.

And, in this handsome production, which was directed by Bernard Cuffling (who also appears as the older Kipps and several other characters), that whole theatre-as-theatre thing really works. Glenn MacDonald’s spacious set elegantly evokes an empty theatrical venue, and it’s got tricks, including a scrim (a gauze curtain), that facilitates some great revelations. In Brad Treneman’s lighting, squares of illumination become separate rooms in the mansion and soft spotlights pinpoint the actors’ faces in the dark, making them look like they’re in period portraits. The program doesn’t credit a sound designer, which is odd, because those cues, too, are magical.

And, saving the best for last, this production allows us to enjoy the subtlety and charm of Cuffling’s acting. There are only two speaking parts in The Woman in Black. Aidan Wright does well as The Actor, who takes on the role of the younger Kipps. It’s a bit odd that these are the only characters in this production who don’t have British accents, but what the heck. It’s better to have a confident performer than one struggling with unfamiliar vowels, and Wright does a fine job of delivering a mountain of dialogue and inhabiting a range of emotions. But it’s Cuffling, the seasoned pro, who really draws the eye. As I mentioned, besides the older Kipps, he plays a variety of characters, including a sniffling office assistant, a taciturn cart driver, and a wealthy Yorkshire businessman. Cuffling differentiates every one of them skilfully — and without fanfare. Within their different physicalities, each inhabits a deep, honest, stillness. Cuffling isn’t telegraphing reactions, in other words: from a range of perspectives, he is simply being.

And, in the artifice of theatre, that is the gift of gifts.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Adapted from Dame Susan Hill’s novel by Stephen Mallatratt. Directed Bernard Cuffling. Produced by the CLASSical ACT Collective with support from Famous Artists Limited. On Friday, February 24. At the Jericho Arts Centre until March 5. Tickets

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