Black magic

Review Theatre

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

ABA Productions and PW Productions

Kallang Theatre/Wednesday

SINGAPORE - Any hardened horror fan might dismiss the premise of The Woman In Black almost immediately. Two actors attempting to give hundreds of audience members shivers down their spines? A bit of an impossible task.

But in an era of high-tech crutches, this low-tech production is a sheer treat, where a creaking floorboard or a gaping door can have more of an impact on heart palpitations than a computer-generated apparition. It is a testament to the longevity of this work that it still managed to set my heart racing from time to time - despite the fact that I had watched this production when it first came to Singapore in 2004 (featuring actor-director Robin Herford in the same role).

The story starts out simply enough. Earnest young solicitor Arthur Kipps leaves cosmopolitan London for the far-flung Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of one of his firm's clients, the reclusive Mrs Alice Drablow. What he comes across, however, will leave its mark on him for years to come, and as an older, greyer man (Herford), he will turn to a bright-eyed Actor (Anthony Eden), bursting with charm and enthusiasm, to exorcise ghosts both emotional and, well, real - through a retelling of his experience.

The elder Arthur Kipps begins this nightmarish journey of reliving his past with great hesitation, but soon slips into the shoes of the host of colourful characters he encounters along the way, from a sniffy clerk to a taciturn horseman, with the hired Actor playing a younger version of himself.

The theatre incarnation of The Woman In Black was created by the late playwright Stephen Mallatratt, who adapted it for the stage from Susan Hill's novel of the same name. It made its debut on the West End in 1987.

This production, however, is not merely about chills and thrills; it is as much a stirring ghost story as it is an ode to the art of storytelling and the theatre.

As Arthur Kipps and his appointed Actor circle each other, sizing each other up for the task at hand, they begin a gentle, if didactic, instructional on the suspension of disbelief that is so necessary in the theatre - whether in the imagination that is required of the audience or how props can make or break a role.

The audience is in for a bit of Theatre 101 as Herford and Eden demonstrate the delightful transformation that can happen when an actor dons a mask or, in the case of this play, a pair of gold-rimmed glasses - and suddenly they are embodying another character altogether.

"One must appreciate the magic," intones Eden in his role of the Actor, "one must not ask how the magic works."

But while there is perhaps just a little too much exposition at the start of the play as the actors work to build up a sense of foreboding and dread, it must be said that weathered recesses of the Kallang Theatre have rarely been so skilfully used; it often feels like the actors themselves are rehearsing the work (and gaining some sort of catharsis) on an abandoned stage, the paint peeling and heavy with dust, ripe for a ghost to emerge from the stained walls.

The production thrives on horror tropes aplenty, from eerie graveyards and cavernous churches to empty mansions and misty marshes.

Much of the production is dependent on the precision of sound and light cues because a spooky atmosphere can be shattered in an instant, and thankfully, these effects work marvellously in tandem with the action on stage. Time passes remarkably quickly when there are deliciously wicked scares around every corner, even if they are of the door-slamming, sudden- screaming variety.

Much of this is due to the duo's excellent sense of rhythm, with an impressive precision to their gestures, as well as the sheer range of Herford's accent and voice work. They both help to ratchet up the tension notch by notch, splicing false resolutions with devious twists and turns.

This production goes to show that a well-imagined ghost, like a good story or work of theatre, lingers long after the curtains have fallen.

Book it THE WOMAN IN BLACK Where: Kallang Theatre When: Today, 8pm; tomorrow, 3 and 8pm;, Sunday, 3pm Admission: $68 to $128 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

corriet@sph.com.sg


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