Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt

Theatre New Brunswick
October 1999

With its first production of the new season, Theatre New Brunswick has unveiled a new look. Three actors and a director all making their TNB debuts, along with a new artistic director and a newly aggressive commercial stance, all contributed to a strong impression that things are changing down at the Playhouse.

Some of the changes may alarm folks who think of the theatre as one of the few remaining social institutions not yet inundated with commercialism and advertising. A local car dealer's sponsorship of the opening night performance was signalled ostentatiously by a sort of display room installed on the Playhouse lawn, and a disembodied commercial message to start the evening.

Anyone discomfited by these portents of new things, however, may have taken some comfort in the fact that The Woman in Black is a show which signals -- in production values, conception, acting, and execution -- that there's still life in TNB.

It's a venerable script -- a long running staple in London, the kind of play you can bank on. But the challenges it presents a company remain considerable, and under the direction of Susan Ferley TNB has pulled together a production which is absorbing, entertaining, and, yes, even rather more than a bit scary.

The most important thing about The Woman in Black is that it is, at its core, about live theatre. It's about telling stories with your voices and bodies and some lights and sound and a few objects, and inviting the audience to participate actively in the creation. If you participate in The Woman in Black you'll come away absorbed and even frightened; you'll have scared yourself with your own imagination. If you don't participate, you may wonder what all the fuss was about.

The show begins with Kent Allen, as an utterly inept reader and actor, standing on what seems to be an unused stage in a 19th century theatre, trying to read to us from a large manuscript, and doing so about as badly as I've heard anybody read.

Suddenly, from down the aisle, comes a voice, interrupting and coaching him. "Forgive me," says Allen, "I'm not an actor." "Yes," agrees Michael Spencer-Davis, got up wonderfully as a Victorian "Actor" type. He proceeds to engage the hapless reader in a discussion of what he'll need to do to involve an audience in the story he's trying so desperately to convey.

In a wonderfully orotund, flamboyant and self confident way, he educates the storyteller in the ways of theatre and the techniques of acting. It turns out that the storyteller, Kipps, like the Ancient Mariner, has a story he just has to tell, and he's hired the Actor to help him tell it.

In order to do so, he must become an actor, and, it turns out, the Actor must become him. As the Actor helps the hapless Kipps turn his story into a performance (against the repeated objections from Kipps that he doesn't want to be an Actor, or give a performance, he just wants to tell his story), we learn gradually that whatever this manuscript holds, it's going to be awful. When the Actor proposes that, as they develop the manuscript into a show, he should play Kipps, and that Kipps should undertake all the other parts, we enter into a kind of mirrors-within-mirrors, story-within-story, theatre- within-theatre space that can, if we cooperate, be immensely engaging. It's a kind of experience that only live theatre can offer.

The challenges to the two actors are substantial, and both meet them with authority and skill.

Spencer-Davis has to transform himself from the confident, splashy, oratorical "Actor" into Kipps, and then back into an actor whose telling of the story has had a devastating impact on his life. He accomplished this Friday night with panache and confidence and an impressive range of skills. His physical presence, throughout, is compelling, and his handling of the pseudo-nineteenth century horror story language brought memories of Vincent Price.

Playing opposite, Kent Allen is equally skillful and compelling. What is particularly impressive is the way he gradually and imperceptibly eases into his "performance." From the stiff, self- conscious "barker at text" at the opening, through the fine moment when the Actor gets him to read some Shakespeare and we see that the language itself pulls some level of "performance" from him, to the way, by the end, he simply switches from one character to another with the changing of a hat, a scarf, a stance, an accent, there was never, I thought, a false note. I found particularly impressive the way his voice occasionally slipped into terror and desperation, hinting at the horror of the story he was seducing the Actor into helping him tell.

Rea Nolan, in the tiny role of the Woman, is effectively spooky and startling -- but in some ways, here as in the production as a whole, the real stars are the set and the sound and lighting designs, by John Thompson, David Campbell, and Michael Sinclair, respectively. All have experience with the Playhouse, and it shows: I haven't seen a production in some time with a better-timed lighting design, for instance. The sound is especially fine at the moment when the Actor demonstrates that all you need in order to have a pony and trap on stage is a box and some appropriate sounds. The complex problem of the switches between recorded voice-overs and live voices is handled well, too -- although I'm still not convinced that the script's choices about what should be narrated, and by who, are the best ones.

Supporting it all, Thompson's set is extremely effective: the old empty stage is richly evoked, and offers the company wonderful opportunities to use the curtain hanging in the center, and the door to its left, in creative and often powerful ways. For instance, the play with shadows while Kipps is spending the night in the deserted house on the barrens goes a long way toward overcoming our familiarity with this particular horror-story cliche.

There are still problems with the evening. The script, in spite of the cleverness of the concept, tells us about things we'd prefer to see dramatized, and there's really no conflict at the heart of it: it's basically exposition. Much of the horror is theoretical. We're just told about it, rather than experiencing it. Finally, I can't help thinking that the show is rather small for the size of the Playhouse: I suspect it's less effective for those sitting farther away.

And the production had, on opening night, some timing problems. After the intrusive opening commercial announcement, for instance, there was a very long empty pause -- I heard a voice behind me mutter, "Okay, okay, I'm ready." But on the whole, the quality of this production augurs well for the future of TNB under its new management. Okay, okay, we're ready.

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