REVIEW: The Woman in Black (Pumphouse Theatre)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

[Ghost Story]

On a rainy, wintery night, with the full moon shining bright, I cross the mists of dream and thought, to forget what is real, and what is not…

The lights of The Pumphouse remain up as Michael Hurst enters the stage and begins to read from a large tome. He starts nervously to tell a tale – a ghost story – but soon we are met by the booming voice of Zane Fleming, chastising the poor reading. Arthur Kipps (Hurst) has hired ‘The Actor’ (Fleming) to help him render his story, in the hopes that it will help him exorcise his all too real demons. The Actor encourages him to ‘have sympathy for your audience’, for stories are not merely about facts; they are also about entertainment. The two men agree that The Actor will play Kipps while Kipps will be the narrator and all other characters. And so, the stage is set and the lights dim, dissolving us into the realm of imagination.

The Woman in Black is a classic play written by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987, adapted from the book by Susan Hill (1983), which at its heart is a clever meditation on the nature of storytelling. It invites us to be aware of the stage and the theatre we inhabit, while also asking us to engage our imaginations, and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Indeed, the horrific spectre of the woman in black seems to haunt not only Arthur Kipps, but the story itself.

Guided by the script, Matt Baker’s direction skilfully weaves these contradictory elements together. A sense of theatricality is provided by the staging, the set, the racks of costumes that the actors change into before our eyes. At the same time, the technical elements – Gareth Evans’ lighting and Geoff Evans’ sound design – create a realistic, almost cinematic, atmosphere.

The experience is held tightly together by the powerhouse duo that is Hurst and Fleming, with the latter expertly portraying the naïve curiosity of both The Actor and the younger Kipps, while Hurst (in now signature fashion) flicks into his various characters with ease. The two work wonderfully together to produce exactly the fear, humour and tension needed to bring the script to life.

And yes, this show is scary! The script is nicely paced, with the first act (at least in this rendition) drawing out the tension and the second delivering with a punch. I can see how a West End stage might be able to produce this show with great spectacle, but Baker and his team clearly did not see the more intimate space of The Pumphouse as a limitation. Instead, its brick walls nicely transport us to the past and the smaller theatre brings us close to the action, while the rain outside can be heard pattering on the rooftop. The moments of fright are delivered with precise timing, with the presence of the ghost all the more palpable for being truly there in the room with us. All this is to say that this play reveals the magic of theatre – that liminal space between fact and fiction, imagination and realism, waking and dreaming.

This play highlights the power of stories, including their potential to transcend the boundaries of fiction, and notes that true horror comes from great tragedy. Kipps enters with a story that simply needs to be told, for storytelling is indeed a powerful means of reconciling our traumas, both personal and collective. Isn’t that, after all, what horror is all about? 

And so, the question must be asked – why do we continue to tell this story? While it has been one of the longest-running (non-musical) shows on the West End (second only to The Mousetrap), it has only been performed in NZ a few times – mostly by Zane Fleming, who has played The Actor twice before! Having never seen any rendition of this story before, I can say I’m glad to have had the opportunity. While I think it’s of utmost importance that our mainstages continue to prioritise local work and uplift emerging voices, I hope there’ll be space for classic pieces such as this within the theatre ecosystem, once it gets more firmly back on its feet.

Ultimately, this production of The Woman in Black is a fun, thrilling and entertaining watch for the theatrically initiated and uninitiated alike. It is full of stage magic, with excellent performances and a deftly created atmosphere that leaves you with that nice, chilling feeling any good horror should.

The Woman in Black plays Pumphouse Theatre 11-19 June 2022.

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