Arthur Kipps did not believe in ghosts, he declared emphatically before being dispatched to the isolated Eel Marsh house to sort through the paperwork of the late owner, Alice Drablow.
Currently celebrating 25 years in the West End, The Woman in Black is now the second longest running play on the London Stage after Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, A remarkable achievement for what started out as a low budget ghost story told by two actors to run over the Christmas period at a quiet Scarborough theatre.
The story is performed as a play within a play, as Arthur Kipps (Malcom James) seeks to unload his burden by enlisting the help of an actor (Matt Connor) to retell the nightmarish tale which has haunted him for decades.
Kipps’s vulnerability is exposed, at first, as he clearly does not have the acting ability to captivate an audience. Despite insisting that he has no interest in being ‘an Irving’, we see him transform, throughout the play, into a myriad of characters that he met during his time at Eel Marsh house.
The play has remained true to its low budget origins, with a stark, minimalistic set where the simple addition of a scarf, slight change in accent or use of a laundry basket as a pony and trap, succeed in bringing the story to life. Over the course of two hours, this chilling tale of revenge, loss and mystery has the audience gripped. Clever use of lighting, dry ice and sound create suspense and illusion. Probably one of the most unnerving moments in the play is when Kipps enters the abandoned nursery to see the once pristine and cherished room transformed into a scene of dereliction and destruction. It is then that the spectre of the Woman in Black manifests her presence and the audience realises that there is substance to the rumours and folklore of the villagers.
Matt Connor exudes energy and enthusiasm as the eager young actor. This contrasts well with Malcom James’s weary and tormented Kipps, whose ill-fated acquaintance with Eel Marsh house killed the hopeful young man he once was.
In a multi-million dollar blockbuster-dominated 21st century, it is refreshing that a simple tale told in the theatre can still captivate and entertain an audience. The success of The Woman in Black lies in a tale well told. The audience themselves, with their own imaginations, create the tension and suspense which is the essence of a classic ghost story.
At last, Kipps believes he is free from years of torment. “They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.”