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The Woman in Black – review by student journalist Dan Thomson

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English Language and Literature, and Drama students went to see The Woman in Black at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Read Dan Thomson’s review:

It would only be at the Cambridge Arts Theatre for a week. I was therefore never in any doubt as to whether I would see it. However, Stephen Mallatraft and Robin Hereford’s theatre adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’ was, in the end, a disappointment. Yes, the play did have some successes like the occasional creation of gothic tension. But, Mallatraft and Hereford still made some disastrous mistakes. Some parts of the play just didn’t work at all. Nearly all the sets and images used were woeful too.

The show starts with Arthur Kipps, played by David Acton, an old man unable to forget a traumatic encounter with a spectre from decades before. He hires an actor, played by Matthew Spencer, in an attempt to finally exorcise his demons. At the beginning of the show, the actor deviously hides in the audience, making everyone jump as he bursts onto the stage. After that, I keep an eye on the empty seat next to me. This creates the gothic atmosphere in just the right way. No blood. No gore. Just ongoing tension and the constant fear that I am never safe. I am really gearing myself up for a great show at this point.

But what’s happening now? Have I actually come to the right show? They perform the opening section of the book which takes far too long and loses the audience five seconds in. That’s probably the one thing any production should never do. There is whispering and the rustling of sweet packets. Clearly everyone else is as bemused as me. Maybe this won’t be everything that it was hyped up to be. But, it gets worse. They cut between the story being acted out to the old man’s recollection far too often. Whenever the story gets exciting, back they go. The change is only symbolised by the flick of a light or the click of fingers. This is interesting for about a millisecond. In the end, though, it becomes very hard to tell exactly what’s going on and who’s who. What were you thinking guys?

And the rant goes on. The projected image of Eel Marsh House looks atrocious. Just a simple mansion that’s hopelessly cheap and crude. The graveyard is even worse; just a few ordinary dust sheets. Those unfamiliar with the story would never guess that this is a graveyard. I even think it’s a bedroom at first. It gets even worse. The mystical woman in black. Supposed to make the audience scream. She wears a pathetic mask that wouldn’t even scare a one-year-old. It doesn’t make the audience scream, it makes them laugh at its decrepitude.

It doesn’t stop there. Regrettably, I am right next to a speaker and this makes the experience a thousand times worse. This means that I experience any sound effects to the very maximum. But, even without that, the scares become too predictable. During the play, Kipps is unpleasantly awoken in the night by the sound of a rocking chair. As he goes to investigate, I just wait for something that will scare the viewers. In the end it is a scream. Why would they use that? I won’t be able to hear properly for the next six years. They just wanted to make the audience jump and Gothic plays should never do that. The tension should always be hidden.

Nevertheless, there are some redeeming features. Although there are only two main actors, they are easily able to cover a play containing many more characters. This is actually quite an ingenious idea from Mallatraft and Hereford. It keeps the play simple and just requires a little imagination from the viewers.

The older actor is very versatile and can convincingly portray a wide variety of characters. Sam Daily. Mr Bentley. Mr Jerome. Keckwick. The old Arthur Kipps. His nasal, irritating voice also enhances the gothic element to the play.  The younger actor also knows when to use the right tone and volume of voice to create the gothic mood. He only plays the actor and the young Arthur Kipps but is able to change between these roles very well. The woman in black is a mysterious character with few appearances. I think this is a good idea as it shows that she can enter at any time and this consistently keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

Some sound effects are actually enjoyable. After his first visit to the house, Kipps starts off along the causeway. A swirling mist of dry ice surrounds him and then from the speaker comes the booming sound of a pony and trap falling into the marsh and the desperate cry from a young boy for help. This sent a chill down my spine. That’s one reason I can be grateful to be so close to the speaker. Just after Kipps passes out, there is a really clever montage of all that has happened before. All the key quotes. All the key things he has heard. This was another inspired idea from Mallatraft and Hereford.

In the end, though, the play gets a thumbs down from me. The sets and images used were no good. I know I had to use my imagination but they made it impossible with their ridiculous presentations of the settings. There were also times when the attempts to scare the audience were just too obvious. The idea of a play within a play could have worked well. It’s just a shame that they returned to the old man’s memory of his story too many times. Once or twice might have worked better. It’s also a pity that much of the script didn’t work and lost the audience. If you like being scared and jumping out your seat then this is the play for you. However, if you prefer something more subtle and gothic, then you’ll be disappointed. I’m wishing I had just stayed at home and watched TV and washed my hair.

Main photo: Dan (fourth left) with the English Language and Literature group.