Horror hit proves not too spooky

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Brendan Kelly, left, and James Scott in “The Woman In Black”. Photo: Elizabeth Avery Scott

Theatre / “The Woman In Black” by Stephen Mallatratt and Susan Hill, directed by James Scott. At the Perform Australia theatre, Fyshwick, until May 26. Reviewed by PHILLIP MACKENZIE

“THE Woman in Black’s” long run on London’s West End, with its clever script by Mallattatt and Hill with heaps of tension, plot twists and opportunities for horror, would seem to put it in the same class as “The Mousetrap” for longevity, if for nothing else.

Honest Puck’s production gives some idea of the reasons for the play’s popularity.

“The Woman In Black” is, basically, a ghost story in which Arthur Kripps, played by  director James Scott, seeks to assuage the terrors he faced in the past when involved in the administration of the estate of a recently deceased recluse.

It is set in the 18th century in a barren, wind-and-tide swept part of the country – just the place and time to raise a few ghosts. Kripps has hired “The Actor” to assist him to exorcise his demons by dramatising the event – an early application of a psychological theory more recently adopted by the “playback theatre” movement.

The early part of the play could also be taken as a workshop exploring the nature of acting for the stage and it takes a little time to get into the spooky bits. Kripps is no thespian and The Actor takes over his role of the story-teller while Kripps begins to develop his theatrical skills through his presentation of the various characters as the story unfolds.

This production is hard put to recreate the foreboding environment of a gothic mansion in a forbidding landscape and relies a great deal on the audience’s willingness to imagine the macabre overtones and the ghostly environment; one line in fact echoes the prologue to Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, in which the audience is urged to imagine the scene of battle, with horses printing their proud hooves etcetera.

This device might have worked for the audience in Shakespeare’s Globe, but today’s audience needs a little more than Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” with some effective noir lighting and some imaginative if, on occasions, a little too-loud sound effects, to conjure up the desired level of gothic horror that the script strives to achieve. The inventive use of scarce scenic resources sometimes failed to rise above the clunky, but were somewhat entertaining in themselves.

James Scott’s Arthur Kripps demonstrates his versatility in playing a range of characters from senior lawyer to taciturn village yokels.

Brendan Kelly is an adequate support but the role could do with a more authoritarian streak in the early stages, segueing into a naive vulnerability as the portents of impending horror build up; he could also turn up the volume in his more intimate and reflective passages.

In this relatively short play the necessary recreation of the back story, while sown with omens and portents, benefits considerably from the climactic denouement, producing a few surprises and raising the hackles, as the eponymous Woman in Black (Katherine Berry) enters fully into the role of the avenging virago from the past.

An entertaining, and not-too-spooky evening in the theatre.

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