Now in its 33rd year of production, the classic Gothic spine-chiller The Woman in Black shows no sign of losing its ability to terrify its audience. This time it is the regal splendour of Buxton Opera House that has its rafters reverberating to the nervous laughter of its patrons.
A mix of young and old, newbies and returnees all squirmed in their seats and cringed in unison as the play dragged them into the action and played havoc with their minds.
A round of ghost stories told round a crackling fire on Christmas Eve has aroused the demons held deep inside the memory of Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James). He needs to exorcise the evil spirits that have controlled him since, as a young solicitor, Kipps was sent to an eerie town in northern England to deal with the estate of Alice Drablow.
Kipps believes that if he is able to reveal his terrible tale in public, then that will be the end of an experience that has dogged him throughout his life and has caused him personal tragedy. He enlists the help of someone with theatrical experience to assist with his delivery. Known simply as The Actor (Mark Hawkins), Kipps’ chosen method of merely reading what is a very lengthy piece of prose is ridiculed by the new aide, who suggests that they should act out the saga with the Actor playing the young solicitor and all other parts being played by Kipps.
Despite many misgivings and worries that he is no Olivier, Kipps grows into the parts he plays and leads us on a horrific journey. Shunned by many of the townsfolk, Kipps is forced to work alone in the isolated Eel House and is haunted by the sound of noises from a child’s bedroom and the sound of a phantom pony and trap crashing from the causeway and into the marsh. And there are the horrific sightings of an emaciated woman wearing black clothing. Arthur has no belief in ghosts but it is clear that he is being tormented by something not from the natural world.
Many will have seen the film version of this play starring Daniel Radcliffe and watched from behind the sofa as they are scared out of their wits. But that version pales into insignificance compared to being in the audience for a live performance.
The stage version is much more faithful to Susan Hill’s best seller and creates an aura of mutual fear that has the audience enthralled almost from the moment of entering the auditorium. This fear spreads through the onlookers like a virus and creates the unique atmosphere that makes a visit to The Woman In Black a special experience
The whole production is a theatrical tour de force. With superb lighting designed by Michael Holt and Kevin Sleep and sound designed by Rod Mead and Sebastian Frost, the tension is ratcheted up and sets the perfect stage for an acting duo at the top of their game.
James and Hawkins work perfectly together as they induce the audience to use their imagination and live through this tormented tale. Their stagecraft has been honed under the direction of Robin Herford to produce the perfect piece of spine-chilling theatre.
This play will disturb even the hardest soul. Take care to avoid those unlit alleyways as you head for the sanctuary of home after watching and resist the temptation to talk to any strange woman in black clothing. Only then might you be free from the curse.
The Woman in Black continues until October 7th. For ticket information contact 01298 72190 or buxtonoperahouse.org.uk