Thursday, 12 September 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Woman In Black - The Grand Theatre, Blackpool.

The woman In Black is, in essence, a ghost story that continues to stand the test of time. It translates wonderfully to the stage, and also screen, as witnessed in the 2012 film featuring Daniel Ratcliffe and Ciaran Hinds. For me, the film really does not do the piece justice, and so I was thrilled to be watching it, for a second time, at the Blackpool Grand Theatre. This truly is a spine-tingling production – for all the right reasons!

The Blackpool Grand Theatre lends itself perfectly to the piece. The play begins set in the same theatre approximately 100 years previously. The Grand Theatre is a grade II listed building, built in 1894, which still retains that opulent grandeur that going to the theatre once had. The Victorian theatre was designed by Frank Matcham, who was given the brief to ‘design the prettiest theatre in the land’ - and he almost certainly did. The Grand was Matcham's first theatre to use an innovative 'cantilever' design to support the tiers, thereby reducing the need for the usual pillars and so allowing clear views of the stage from all parts of the auditorium. The cozy auditorium provided an excellent atmosphere in which you could really feel the tension amongst the audience as they waited in anticipation for the next ‘jumpy moment.’

Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of the best-selling novel by Susan Hill has continued to draw in audiences both young and old for the last thirty years, and if last night’s production is anything to go by, this production could continue to run at least another thirty. Stephen Mallatratt credits this to his passion for the play, which was first commissioned in 1987. Mallatratt has continued to refine and hone each individual character (of which for a 2-hander there are surprisingly many!), scenes and sinister moments. The director admits that casts are changed every nine months, and rehearsed with fresh faces, each bringing their own interpretation to the roles they play. Not only does this bring new blood into the production, it allows some respite to the current actors, who have an enormity of lines to learn and parts to perform. Not only this, but the content of the piece puts real pressure on the stamina and performance of the actor. The ability to unsettle an audience is dependent on the ability of the actors to scare themselves and convince the audience too of their distress. I can say, that this was achieved with aplomb in the performance I saw. The play features lengthy monologues for The Actor, and a range of characters, each with their own subtle traits portrayed by Arthur.

Arthur Kipps, (Robert Goodale), begins the play reciting lines from a book. His lines are muttered so quietly and poorly that you could quite obviously see the audience craning their necks, and quite audibly hear them muttering and murmuring, willing him to speak up, however this is merely to set the scene for what is to come, for The Woman In Black is a piece termed ‘meta-theatre’, a play within a play. Kipps wishes his story to be told, and it is Daniel Easton’s character – The Actor, who obliges, eventually becoming Kipps himself, for the purpose of narrating the story. Kipps then becomes a multitude of characters, each one of some importance to the story he so desperately needs to be heard. His story tells the tale of a young Kipps, a lawyer who was sent to Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of his reclusive client Mrs Drablow.

Goodale is able to move seamlessly from one character to the next, using only subtle costume changes, slight movements, and some accents to portray at least six different characters. Goodale moved well physically and worked really hard to try to conjure up the imagination of the audience, to see him as each different character, from the snively office clerk, through to the brash and bold landowner, and back again to Kipps.

The Actor, (Daniel Easton), begins the play as a rather loud and obnoxious actor-manager, who at times goads Kipps to continue with his story, only to find this has disastrous consequences, as we learn at the end of the performance – however, there are no spoilers here!

The use of minimal set continues to push the audience to use their imagination, and I believe this is what really sets the play up for its shocking impact. What can possibly be worse than your deepest darkest fears? The fact that you are encouraged to use your own imagination enhances the fear amongst the audience. With an effective use of lighting, gauze and sound, the audience can be heard shrieking and fidgeting in their seats, as the play becomes more and more chilling. Initial early shocks, created by simple and effective use of lighting and sound, hold the audience in suspense, wondering where the next plot turn will come from. As the play continues, the audience begin to shrink further into their seats, as the horrid details of the real story of Eel Marsh house and it's inhabitants are slowly revealed.

All in all, it is quite clear to understand why this play continues to draw an audience both on tour and at it's home in the heart of the capital. To fully appreciate this chilling piece of theatre I suggest you go and immerse yourself in it's story. Be open and let your imagination run wild – you won’t be disappointed.

Reviewer - Jen O'Beirne
on - 11/9/19

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