Theatre Review: The Woman In Black

John Waters and Daniel MacPherson will have you jumping at things that go bump in the night with this wonderfully atmospheric production

John Waters and Daniel MacPherson will have you jumping at things that go bump in the night with this wonderfully atmospheric production

Presented by: PW Productions, Woodward Productions and Gooding Productions 

Reviewed: 16 May 2024

Susan Hill’s 1983 gothic horror/ghost novel The Woman In Black has been transformed media-wise into a few forms (television, radio etc.). But the most well known of these transformations would be the 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe (his first film without his magic wand) and the 1987 stage adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt, which ran on London’s West End for 33 years, making it the second longest running West End show after The Mousetrap.

After seeing this current production at the Dunstan Playhouse it is no wonder that it ran for so long. This version, directed by the original Director, Robin Herford, and Associate Director, Antony Eden, who was in one of the West End casts of the show (so they both have the right pedigree and knowledge), is astounding!! From the well-crafted script by Mallatratt, through the incisive direction, the atmospheric design (Michael Holt), lighting design (Kevin Sleep) and sound design (Sebastian Frost), to the stunning performances of John Waters and Daniel MacPherson.

The theatrical version of the story has Lawyer Arthur Kipps (Waters) wanting to tell his story to friends and family in the hope of relieving himself of a burden he has been carrying for most of his adult life. Because he’s not very adept at telling a story which to all intent and purpose would take 5 hours to read out loud, he enlists the services of an unnamed Actor (MacPherson) to help and mentor him. The Actor turns it into a play with himself as the young Kipps and the real Kipps playing all the other roles. No more plot line otherwise the surprises (and there are a few) would be ruined.

Atmosphere and tension are a huge part of what makes the play work, but there is plenty of humour in this production to calm your nerves – especially in Act One, although it does sneak through every now and then in the more dramatic Act Two. Of course, what makes for a lot of the atmosphere in a show is lighting and sound. Those two factors are vitally important in this show. Sleep’s lighting, or sometimes lack of it, moves back and forth from fairly bright for scenes on the theatre stage to extremely effective sepia and midnight blue tones for the “story” parts – and we are always effectively transported by the lighting design to where we need to be. Frost’s sound design is crystal clear and vital. The initial shock element in the show is totally unexpected and works because of the sound and lighting effect combined. These elements combine beautifully with Holt’s simple (or is it?) set design with perhaps the world’s longest drop cloth in the history of theatre.

Director Herford definitely understands the Gothic Horror genre. He sets up situations with his actors that have us going on a rollercoaster ride of laughter, drama and, most importantly, suspense. With a show such as this the audience always needs to be apprehensive of what is going to happen next. This happens fantastically here – e.g. there is a scene in Act Two that is fairly dark and nothing seems to be happening, but on the night reviewed this reviewer could hear footsteps and tiny patches of noise: was it meant to be part of the play or was it extraneous audience noise? I don’t know!

This play relies heavily on the only two actors on stage. They must be consummate practitioners of their craft. And boy, Waters and MacPherson are just that! Every bit the equal of one another, they are superb. They exemplify the art of acting! As the older Kipps, Waters must, supposedly, not be very good at acting until he warms into it. He pulls this off with panache; and then starts playing all the other characters with different characteristics and accents (even subtleties in the same accent). One always knows who he is at any given time. There is one scene where his character doesn’t say a word but Waters conveys everything with just a fantastic look on his face.

Although younger, MacPherson is very much Waters’ contemporary when it comes to acting chops. Because he plays the younger Kipps, he has the bulk of the play on his shoulders and carries it off brilliantly. His deterioration emotionally and physically during Act Two is subtle and yet so clearly achieved. His silences in Act Two are impeccable and has one sitting on the edge of their seats. Drama students need to watch these two iconic Australian actors plying their trade – their performances are magnificent!!

This production of The Woman In Black is what really good theatre is all about – it’s exciting, exhilarating and hugely entertaining. And always remember, it’s only a play: OR IS IT????

Reviewed by Brian Godfrey

Photo credit: Justin Nicholas

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: Until 26 May, 2024
Duration: 2 hours (including 20 min interval)
Tickets: From $75.00

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