Theatre review - Woman in Black, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

The Women in Black, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

The Women in Black, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds - Credit: Archant

With Halloween approaching, Jo Haywood catches a spooky play that started life in Scarborough.

It’s amazing how creative you can be when you’re skint. Delicious meals can be cooked up from a few shake-the-fridge scraps, clothes can be cut from grandma’s old curtains (once the dust has been beaten from their folds) and hit theatre productions can be conjured from a sparse selection of props, a couple of versatile actors and a fiendishly good script.

In the late summer of 1987, Robin Herford, then artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, needed a play to run through Christmas and finish the season. Unfortunately, he had virtually no money left – maybe enough to fund four actors (if two of them were happy to survive on fresh air and the goodwill of the ice cream girl).

He commissioned resident playwright Stephen Mallatratt to write a two-handed ghost story on a budget that would not keep a church mouse in the style to which it had become accustomed. The result was The Woman in Black, a smart reimagining of Susan Hill’s classic novel that sees two characters – humble solicitor Arthur Kipps and another simply known as Actor – play out the eerie goings-on at Eel Marsh House using little more than a wicker basket, a couple of chairs and a collection of hats.

It was an immediate hit with the Scarborough audience. A year later, Robin directed the first London production at the Lyric. The play then transferred to the Strand, then the Playhouse and, finally, the Fortune, where it’s still playing now – 27 years and seven million bums on seat later.

This legacy could prove quite weighty in the wrong hands, but David Acton (Kipps) and Matthew Spencer (Actor) bring a deft lightness of touch to the current touring production, which is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until October 29th and returns to Yorkshire next year for a run at Cast Doncaster from May 8th-13th.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Woman in Black – apart from you-know-who popping up and scaring the you-know-what out of you when you least expect it – is that it’s a very funny play. Both Acton and Spencer have beautiful comic timing and are unafraid to linger over a line, every thought playing out across their wonderfully expressive faces as they tease the humour and tickle the audience.

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There were just as many hoots of laughter as there were screams of terror during the Playhouse production – more laughter, in fact, than I’ve heard at many so-called comedies. But, at the end of the day, when the mist descends in billowing clouds across the murky depths that separate the too-quiet village of Crythin Gifford from the bleak house on Eel Marsh Island, this a ghost story and the audience want to be terrified.

In this respect, it delivers. From the moment sound designer Gareth Owen cleaves through the audience with his first deafening crack of thunder (there was not a single bum left on a seat at that point, I can tell you) to the black-bonneted woman’s final ghostly hurrah – hauntingly lit by lighting designer Kevin Sleep – the tension is skilfully ratcheted up notch by terrifying notch.

I won’t give the game away by telling you where the jumps occur, but please be aware that there are lots of them. You won’t know where The Woman in Black is coming from next, but rest assured, she’s coming. She might even be behind you right now.

Made you look.

Jo Haywood