The Torch Theatre Company returned to the stage this October, led by award winning Director Peter Doran, with their production of the ultimate ghost story, The Woman in Black.
Susan Hill’s gothic horror story, adapted for stage by Steven Mallatratt, has been seen by over 7 million people, terrifying audiences for 25 years in the West End.
The 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe also received huge critical acclaim.
Although it started out as a budget production, with hopes of filling Scarborough Theatre in the run up to Christmas, The Woman in Black sold out on its first night in 12th December 1987 and has been showing at London Theatres ever since. It is one of the longest running plays in the history of British theatre.
The Torch Theatre company thrilled audiences in 2014 with their interpretation of Henry James’ gothic tale ‘The Turn of the Screw’. It is not surprising that Director Peter Doran has chosen to return with such a phenomenal horror classic. He doesn’t disappoint.
Doran takes Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of the play within a play, with an onstage cast of two. Kipps is the man who feels he must tell his story in order to exorcise his demons and enlists the help of an actor to stage a production. As a junior solicitor Kipps was sent to attend the funeral of Alice Drablow, the soul inhabitant of Eel Marsh house. Standing at the edge of a causeway, sheathed in fog and mystery he is unaware of the horror and heartache that lies behind its fascinating exterior. After seeing a vision of an emaciated woman in black at the funeral, things begin to turn more terrifying for Kipps.
Kipps (Ioan Hefin) takes on several minor characters in the re-telling of his story, while the actor (Rhys Meredith) takes on the role of Kipps himself. Both Hefin and Meredith are newcomers to the Torch Theatre company and impress in their roles. Their improvisation with little or no props is a credit to their skills.
As the play takes on a more sinister and menacing turn, Meredith’s reaction to the horror unfolding is contagious.
The live audience members are the voyeurs of the production and the story itself. They are immediately immersed in the action as the men appear from the back of the fully lit auditorium. Moments later, when the story begins, we are thrust into darkness. The presence of the actors away from the stage sets an expectation, leaving viewers uncertain if something might creep up behind them.
The small stage and intimate setting works well to enhance the feeling of the audience being voyeurs to the story.
The set, designed by Sean Crowley, is multi layered and multi-functional. It moves from the bare interior of the abandoned theatre, with chairs, clothes rail and a wicker trunk that later becomes a train carriage, a horse and trap and furniture for eel marsh house.
The graveyard, an area behind the gauze, covered by dust sheets is less convincing, yet easily forgotten amid the various effects.
In the second act, as the atmosphere changes, an upstairs is revealed. A nursery complete with children’s toys, a bed, a rocking horse and rocking chair. The projection as Kipps walks up the stairs is extremely effective, more so when we capture the woman at the top of the staircase and she turns to look at the audience. Like a Victorian photograph, it is a beautifully haunting moment.
The Woman, played by Miriam O’Brien (also new to the Torch for this season) is spine chilling as she floats silently about the stage, a white face in the gloom.
As the show ends and the actors take their bows, the woman remains in the background, emphasising her part in the story, always looking over them.
Doran uses Susan Hill’s ‘power of suggestion’ to great effect. There is no music, just the sound of tolling bells, whistles and screams of horror echoing throughout the theatre. The familiar locked door and empty rocking chair, still mobile, appear as the tension heightens. Smoke is pumped out from beneath the green lit stage, and swirls over the heads of the audience, to conjure the marshland as the sounds of a horse and carriage and screams ring out.
Although the Woman is only on stage for minutes her presence and the suggestion of her leaves the atmosphere tense. Especially with the final twist of the story, left to the imagination of those watching. The two hour show disappeared, leaving an audible sigh of relief from the audience when the lights came on.
Torch Theatre Company have produced another hit, taking a well- known ghost story and presenting it with conviction. The Woman in Black will leave you exasperated, exhilarated and unable to help looking over your shoulder.
Until October 22
Photography Drew Buckley
Director Peter Doran: