Latest Review – The Woman in Black [Palace Theatre, Manchester] [UK Tour]

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. At high tide, it is completely cut off from the mainland.

It is fantastic to see theatre-starved audiences gradually starting to return to their local theatres again post lockdown, and to see some of the big West End shows back out on the road again. However, sitting in a fairly sparse auditorium last night, lacking the general atmosphere and excitement of pre-pandemic times, it was clear that the effects of COVID are still very much prevalent in this great industry.

Perhaps a combination of ticket prices, anxiety about returning to some form of normality, and the unease of sitting amongst others inside an auditorium, though whatever the case, it is abundantly clear that it is going to take a good long while for the theatre industry to fully recover and for things to return to normal.

The Woman In Black is a show that relies on atmosphere, tension and a response from its unnerved audience. The reception last night was warm and great to see given the number of empty seats, though it is a devastating shame for such brilliant casts and creatives to have to go out and perform to such depleted houses.

Antony Eden and Robert Goodale in the Tour of Woman In Black by Susan Hill @ Cambridge Arts Theatre. Directed by Robin Herford. ©Tristram Kenton

Stephen Mallatratt’s inspired stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling gothic novella remains one of the great theatre experiences, and it deserves to be playing to bustling, packed out houses eager to be terrified by the ominous tales of Eel Marsh House.

The ghostly tale follows Arthur Kipps, a Junior solicitor summoned to the small market town of Crythin Gifford to handle the estate of the late Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of the desolate and foreboding Eel Marsh House. Cut off from the mainland by the tides, and engulfed by thick sea mists over the marshes, Kipps is forced to endure the true terrors of the infamous house, all the while haunted by the mysterious woman in black, who stalks the town and its residents with a sinister purpose in mind.

Mallatratt changes the format of Hill’s novella quite significantly, here setting the action within the confines of a deserted theatre, where an older Kipps now engages the help of a charismatic young actor to help him deliver his story to an audience of close family and friends, all in the desperate hope of exorcising the dark curse he believes has been cast over him once and for all.

It is quite a notable change from the original, but nonetheless an incredibly clever one, and in Robin Herford’s ingenious production, it is a device that works superbly given the immersive, stage setting.

Antony Eden and Robert Goodale in the Tour of Woman In Black by Susan Hill @ Cambridge Arts Theatre. Directed by Robin Herford. ©Tristram Kenton

The Woman In Black proves a very authentic and faithful adaptation, retaining a good deal of Hill’s original dialogue and interweaving some effective moments of humour into the suspense, but perhaps most importantly remaining true to the overall intentions of the novella.

The demanding two-hander is expertly performed by Antony Eden and Robert Goodale, both fabulous as The Actor and Kipps, respectively.

The show will celebrate its 35th anniversary next year, having first premiered as a  special Christmas ghost story at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre back in 1987, later transferring to London’s West End and playing at various different venues before finally settling at the intimate Fortune Theatre in August 1989, which it continues to call its home to this day. Its longevity is unsurprising as it is such a brilliant and immersive piece of pure theatre.

As a showcase for outstanding performances, ingenious craftsmanship and pure theatrical magic, relying only on very basic (traditional) designs and stage techniques – simple but oh so effective – The Woman In Black remains a spine-chilling masterpiece of British Theatre.

Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes (approx.), including one 15-minute interval.

Final Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester: Saturday 28th August 2021.

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.


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