Grand Theatre, Swansea: 28th February 2015
It is a very different take on the story if you saw the film or read the original novel by Susan Hill, due to the framing device, but the core narrative, once in village, shares the same basic narrative structure with fewer characters. In this version Arthur Kipps is, many years after the events, trying to get an actor to perform scenes based on the events to explain what happened to his family. The actor, never named, takes on the role of Arthur and Arthur himself performs all the other roles doing caricatures of the people he met. The action takes place in the theatre, the actual one you are sat in watching the play in, during the early 1950s.
The stage layout is seperated into 3 sections as if to create a sense that the further back the scenery is from the front of stage, and each seperated by a thin veil of cloth backlit when in use, the more influenced by the woman in black’s haunting it is:
The foreground where all of the ‘inside this theatre’ events take place and many of the scenes outside the house along with steps off the stage where a few ‘off in the distance’ moments occur though you will not miss anything should you be in the upper circle as I was. At the front section during the start, on the right side of the stage, is a grey curtain obscuring the ‘locked door’ which comes into use later and presumably is an unmoveable piece of scenery. The wicker basket is central and a single light chair is next to it. Later a heavier leather upholstered chair is used for the office scene and other parts. On the left of the stage is a clothes rail on which the coats, scarves, etc are hung in preparation for Arthur to grab them to use to visually represent each of the figures he caricatures during the events of the story. Again on the left is the ‘stage door’ through which they enter and exit the stage usually.
The second layer, hidden behind a thin semi-opaque curtain, represents the interior of the house and the bedroom. Strong lights are shone forward from off stage so you are able to see though it though, as far as I remember, this veil is never removed. The rocking chair, bed and cupboard are covered by dust clothes during most scenes to represent different rooms of the house which have been stored away after the abandonment of the house. Of course for anyone familiar with the story the empty rocking chair moving by itself is one of the pivotal moments in the narrative and it doesn’t fail to impress though it is a simple traditional stage effect. The cupboard is filled with old fashioned children’s toys, as it is the nursery, although for those familiar with the film the toys do not play a significant role unlike the automatons of the film (although I think one does go off suddenly at one point). The bed is a bed so there is nothing to add except it is dishevelled at one point but properly made in another scene.
At the third layer are stairs, behind archways, for some of the pivotal scenes and a large brightly lit cross which is used when Arthur and his companion enter a church and we first meet the woman in black who is shrouded almost completely in the dark. These are visually very impressive props in what is otherwise quite a minimalist staging design.
They use a lot of improvised items, especially a large wicker basket as a table, desk, bed and [horse and] trap. If you don’t have a bit of an imagination and need things to be literally presented to you it’s probably not going to be satisfying. This play is in the nein of M. R. James’ ghost stories and you should go to it with that in mind: you are being told a ghost story not shown it.
The role of Arthur Kipps was performed by Malcolm James and the role of ‘the actor’ is performed by Matt Connor. The person who plays the woman in black is not named and during the curtain call shows up in the far background once the other two actors have taken a few bows. If anything the woman in black running around seems a bit comical due to the period dress she is wearing. Also an imaginary dog plays a significant role during the play and in many ways it is a light hearted fun performance and should be enjoyed as such.
It was really enjoyable but unfortunately Swansea Grand had the ‘day out’ crowd who were there having a chat even after being told repeatedly it’s a quiet play and they need to avoid making noise as much as possible. When it started, and even though the ushers brought popcorn buckets and asked people to unwrap their sweets before the show as it was very quiet, there were still a lot who ignored this thus making many of the opening lines illegible. The play starts with Arthur Kipps doing a very quiet, intentionally bad, reading of his account before the actor tells him to be more theatrical. Also later when there were any ‘jump scares’ people felt the need to have a chat about it each and every time “Ohh that made me jump!” … no really? You would think that was the entire point…
It’s a great show. If you go to the theatre or have an appreciation of it there are a lot of fun moments. If you want a traditional ghost story its good and in the vein of M. R. James’ works. It has some really nice visuals like the church scene when the woman in black first appears and a very good, economical, use of staging to maximise its effects.
It would probably scare children and give them a bit to worry about as the woman in black is ‘real’ but for a mature audience it is a fun experience with a few moments of jumping if you are unfamiliar with the narrative.
I don’t think you will miss too much sitting in the upper circle but it would be preferable to be in the stalls if you can do so. Really, it’s sad to say, a lot depends on the audience you have with you at any given performance. If they find the ‘you have to imagine the dog’ part funny then the show can be a fun light hearted affair. If they are collectively in the mood to be absorbed into the telling it can be a fun, mild, traditional, ghost story. However if they are the sort to react to the requirement for imagination with “what? …I have to use my imagination!? what did I pay a ticket for? I could just as well have listened to the radio” sort of crowd you are doomed. They will get ‘bored’ like little school children and resort to laughing as they rustle their sweet wrappers and taking any opportunity to speak during the performance then it will be diminished. I hope to go see this again in the New Theatre, Cardiff one day as I think the play is a fun experience for anyone to go to and for those who perhaps enjoyed pantomimes as a child but don’t want to commit to ‘serious’ theatre like Arthur Miller’s ‘A View From The Bridge’ it is an easy going, simple, introduction to theatregoing which won’t alienate any children who they may bring along.
I wish there were more shows like this. It was a lot of fun.
Next time hopefully I will be able to type up about ‘A View From The Bridge’.
It may be a few days or even on the weekend. These things take a bit longer than the usually-made-up-on-the-spot vignette pieces.