Tuesday, October 3

The Woman in Black – Wolverhampton Grand

Like the elegant yet phantasmagorical lady of the title, this play glides before us with confidence and aplomb unfurling a cornucopia of thrills, spills, shocks, jolts and moments of truly unsettling terror. This is not fairground spookery, this is not a tuppenny ghost ride. This is your genuine ghost story with every trope you would expect and lots more you wouldn’t.

Since this ghostly apparition first shimmered into existence at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 you may be forgiven for thinking the years had not treated her well and the dust and spiderwebs may have gathered and everything had started to creak a little. But no. This version from PW Productions is as sharp, as fresh and as tight as if this were its premier. The adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel has overshadowed its source and held its ghostly own in the West End for 33 years and tonight’s performance with its latest cast is breathtaking. It deftly and adroitly leads its spellbound audience through a beautifully constructed fireside story of death, anguish and horror.

Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins must take the first bow for the fascinating array of characterisations deployed with little more than a couple of hats and coats. The play is peopled with character after character all precisely and cleanly drawn enough to make us believe it is a full cast. It was such a joy to hear a play which pivots almost solely on the clarity and enunciation of the performers. Each was crystal clear in every guise, and each proved themselves an endearing and beguiling storyteller. That alone is worth the price of admittance. Add to that Robin Herford’s seamless direction which has the courage to play with silence and movement never allowing the actors to drop the ball once. And add to that Sebastian Frost’s sound design (based on Rod Mead’s original sound) which will haunt your head well after the curtain is down. And you have an irresistible mix of talents.

But this is the interesting part. It’s a conceit. A simple but very effective conceit. Without giving much away, an actor and a writer come together at the outset to perform a play about a woman in black and slowly, like a creeping fog, the play starts to envelop both them and us as the tale gradually and deftly unfurls with the strong defiant tempo of an old grandfather clock. But it’s a play. They tell us it’s a play. They rehearse it before us, yet it modulates so gently, so gracefully and so confidently into a truly nerve-tingling piece of portrayed drama it’s impossible to see the join. That is its greatest trick.

Steven Spielberg said he doesn’t make films with a beginning, a middle and an end. He makes films with a beginning which just keeps beginning. Such is the same with The Woman in Black – it grows and evolves before our eyes into something spine-tinglingly, hair-raisingly, blood-curdlingly chilling and unearthly. Never have I seen an audience so enthralled.

It is a testament to everyone this piece is still very much alive and tribute to all at PW Productions who made it happen.

Reviewer: Peter Kinnock

Reviewed: 6th September 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This review is dedicated to producer Peter Wilson MBE who has sadly passed away this week. From all at North West End UK we send our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.