Mr Kipps has a story he must tell. It’s a story of horror and misery and death. He has recruited an actor to help him translate this story from his memories so he can finally explain to his family their history. Neither man is aware, however, of just how long the ghosts of Mr Kipps’s past will linger.
This stage adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt of Susan Hill’s Gothic-inspired novel attempts to suck the audience into the chilling, haunted world of Eel Marsh House. Framed as a series of rehearsals between an actor (Garth Holcombe) and present-day Mr Kipps (Jamie Oxenbould), the story layered histories and memories atop each other with a charming theatricality. The key difficulty of bringing a ghost story to the stage is developing genuine fear in the audience as they sit safely in their seats. Director Mark Kilmurry used refined production design and pin-point perfect timing to create an unsettling atmosphere and more than a few startled screams.
The set and costume design of this early 20th century London location was deceptively simple from Hugh O’Connor. Some bits of furniture, choice props, and a single door transformed the small stage into a rehearsal room, law office, train carriage, and haunted house, while a series of coats and hats were used to turn Mr Kipps and his actor into a whole cast of characters. The most effective set piece, though, was a wall of sheer grey curtains across the back wall which, at first glance, represented grey London fog but additionally served a practical purpose as they became opaque or transparent for reveals throughout the production.
The set design shone in no small part because of Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting design with its attention to detail in use of cool and warm tones, crafty silhouettes of church windows or office blinds, and even a small fire to keep out the cold. Similarly, Michael Waters’s sound design delighted in theatre magic with atmospheric London street sounds but also the terrifying soundscape of the marshes with invisible horse hooves, screaming babies, and a perfectly timed crow caw.
Under Kilmurry’s direction, the production design was well-orchestrated to construct a spooky, unnerving atmosphere on stage but the success of the production really came down to the expert performances of Holcombe and Oxenbould. Holcombe’s actor was bright and cheerful which informed his rendition of the naive Mr Kipps, who now stood before him as a troubled man in Oxenbould. Oxenbould additionally demonstrated his versatility to aplomb as he cycled through stoic trap drivers, wily businessmen, and the many other townspeople tainted by the history of Eel Marsh House. The two had a measured, controlled dynamic on stage together with a keen sense of the audience in both speech and silence. Like the production design, the performances felt very carefully crafted to great effect.
Like most ghost stories, the story of Eel Marsh House goes unresolved with consequences leaking into the present day and, also like most ghost stories, the Woman in Black exists largely as a piece of thrilling entertainment; an opportunity to feel a fear out of the ordinary or to let out a cathartic yelp. The pleasure is in allowing yourself to be taken in by the skilful hands of professional story-tellers, led down a dark hallway, and consumed for (at least) an evening.
The Woman in Black is running at Ensemble Theatre from June 11th – July 24th
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