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Review of The Woman In Black at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

I was struck by two surprising things at the start of the production of The Woman In Black, the first before the play had begun. This was the staggering slope on display on the set. I was aware of the raking (technical term!) of the Royal stage, but gosh surely this was in a different league. No pieces with wheels on most certainly! The second was in the very early stages of the play. I had never seen the play before and had the belief that this was a deadly serious, creepy ghost story. How wrong I was, with the initial setting of the story via a clever planned stage production, this was actually also a very funny play.

Telling the story of Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James) and his wish to relay his shocking and disturbing tale for an assembled crowd, he seeks the help of a theatre actor (played by Matt Connor) and who remains only known as "The Actor". Much humour early in the play is garnered from Kipps' inability to perform his story for the, as yet, absent audience, and latterly in their ability to stage certain parts of the production, in particular a certain Spider. However much of this I will not comment on further, so as not to spoil any enjoyment for those that have yet to see the production.

As the only actors throughout, James and Connor are superb. James hugely effective as the witness to the horror and reluctant actor, who "The Actor" will make an Irving if it kills him. From the early parts and leading into that splendid glasses moment, James really is a joy and over the two hours we see him grow into the role and indeed suffer the horror of his tale anew. His depiction of the various characters and their highly distinctive accents is lovely and truly enjoyable to watch.

If possible, Connor is even better, having the bulk of the lines (and in a two hander, that is truly a bulk), he is virtually never from the stage and never misses a beat. Switching effortlessly between his characters and making them distinct from one another. The pair also are excellent stage managers as all set moves are created sublimely on stage by them (sometimes in darkness) with no other cast or stage hands present (or never visibly so), therefore never breaking from the atmosphere of the piece. I say no one else is present, but maybe there is someone, or something...

I always give the impression that I am going to scream like a little girl at frightening things, but I haven't really very often and if I am honest I didn't during The Woman In Black. That is not to say that it is not atmospheric and creepy, especially judging by some of the reactions around me anyway. Hysterical screams, high murmurings of "Oh Jesus" amongst others, the crowd were certainly disturbed. The moment I found the most unsettling was the mist scene, as the mist headed towards me in the dark and glorious Royal, it truly was a touch unsettling. This was one of several neat tricks used throughout the production, those of which I will refrain from spoiling, suffice to say that clever use of light and sound, did evoke moments of true eeriness.

Combined, designer Michael Holt, lighting Kevin Sleep and sound Gareth Owen have created a heady combination of effects under the guidance of director Robin Herford to bring the late Stephen Mallatratt's play (from the Susan Hill novel) vividly to the stage. A glorious and creepy night out that will have more than your chair rocking by the end.

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Performance viewed: Monday 10th November, 2014 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal).

The Woman In Black is at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 15th, 2014 and on tour until 4th July, 2015 and in London at The Fortune Theatre. For full details visit the website at http://www.thewomaninblack.com/

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