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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

The Woman in Black

Updated: May 11, 2023


Review: At the Oxford Playhouse until 24 July, in the West End and on tour around the country until mid October. Booking details here.

[Disclosure: The Oxford Playhouse provided me with a ticket to this show for the purposes of this review.]

The Woman in Black was on tour in 2020 when the pandemic hit, instantly suspending the tour to some unknown date in the future. Happily, the show is now back on the road and will tour the country till mid-October. The original story was told by Susan Hill in her novel of the same name. The novel was a huge hit and has been adapted for screen and for stage, in this version, by Stephen Mallatratt.

Mallatratt has chosen to tell Hill’s story by having the character Kipps, an old man, hire a theatre actor/director as a kind of public speaking coach. Kipps wants to be coached in how to tell his very traumatic story in an engaging way to his family and friends. Kipps believes that by telling the story of what happened to him as a young man, the trauma will be exorcised and he will be able to live in peace. And it’s in this way, by rehearsing the performance Kipps is to give to his friends and family, that Hill’s story unfolds.

It’s not exactly clear why Kipps has waited until now to tell his story, but Robert Goodale plays Kipps so convincingly that the story flows very naturally. In fact, both actors give excellent performances – playing multiple characters.

The play has a very slow start – setting the scene and then explaining how the story is to unfold took around half an hour – for me, this started to drag. But, by the time interval came around the audience was engaged and looking forward to the second half.

While I never read other people’s reviews before I’ve written my own, I am aware that this show received multiple five star reviews on its original tour - judging by the headline quotes – praising the gripping, scary nature of the show.

Perhaps the scariness was blunted for me because I know the story so well and was able to anticipate the twists and turns of the story very easily. Perhaps I’ve watched and read too many horror films and novels. Or, perhaps the last 18 months have inured me to fictional horror. All these reasons may have contributed to the fact that I just didn’t find the show scary, creepy or gripping in the least.

There are plenty of jump scares; some good blood curdling screams and other loud noises to pierce the stage silence and make the audience jump. In fact, a good portion of the scares relied upon complete silence being pierced by loud noise. This can be very effective, but only when there’s genuine, tense silence.

I think to conjure the effect of complete silence on stage – the sound designer needs to play some sort of low or spine-chilling music as a sort of white noise to drown out audience noise. As it was, whenever there was silence on the stage – always a precursor to a creepy moment – it amplified audience noise (which was not especially noisy), which then blunted the subsequent scary moment. Stage silence meant that we heard every person trying, discretely, to eat crisps, the click-and-sigh of fizzy drink cans being opened, whispers, giggles, coughs.

At one tense moment on the stage – again in complete silence – some poor soul in the audience was overcome by a huge sneeze, which they tried to muffle – ending in an enormous and comic noise that had the whole stalls audience laughing. It was all very good humoured (and was quite funny) but undeniably upstaged a scary moment on stage. It didn’t bother me at all but rather than enhance the scariness, the complete silence on the stage blunted any build-up of spine-chilling tension. That is sort of a problem when you are telling a ghost story.

Everything about this production is competent – the sets and costumes are good, the sound design (apart from all the silences) is effective and the acting is first rate. The audience atmosphere was quite jolly. So I think it would be a fun night out with friends, if the ticket price is not an issue for you - especially if you don’t already know the story well.

But if you only go to the theatre once in a blue moon, then I think I might save my money until something really special comes along.

Going to the theatre on "freedom day"

I saw this show at the Oxford Playhouse on “freedom day”, the day when all remaining COVID restrictions were officially lifted. All credit should be given to the staff at the Playhouse who are doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances. Last night’s show seemed to be a sell out and even with the limited capacity, it was the most crowded indoor, enclosed area that I have been in since the start of the pandemic. Honestly, I was a little bit nervous.

Despite government suggestions that people wear masks in enclosed, crowded spaces – only around half the audience was wearing masks – the others were either not wearing masks at all or were wearing them on their chins. Even with the distanced seating, there were people sitting very close – in the next seat along directly in front and behind. It was a funny feeling to hear people right behind me, in the next seat along, sneezing and coughing, mask less.

I have been fully vaccinated, so for the time being, I will continue to go to the theatre, wear a mask, use sanitiser and keep my distance as much as I can. However, given what we know about the transmissibility of the Delta variant, I’m not sure that you can genuinely protect yourself from being exposed to COVID if someone in the audience is positive, and not wearing a mask, in an indoor, packed theatre no matter how conscientious the theatre itself has been. It’s worth thinking about if you’re vulnerable or haven’t been vaccinated.


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