Ensemble Theatre, June 16


Now listen closely, because I’m only going to say this once. A man called Kipps is played by an anonymous professional actor who, in turn, is played by Garth Holcombe, and a character called Actor is played by the real Kipps (who’s not an actor), who’s played by Jamie Oxenbould (who is). I know: my therapist says it’s set me back six months. But once you wrap a scrap of functioning brain around the idea, it becomes a rather clever conceit, the discombobulation making us readier prey for Stephen Mallatratt adaptation of Susan Hill’s Gothic horror story, The Woman in Black.

Jamie Oxenbould and Garth Holcombe. All photos: Daniel Boud.

Mallatratt’s set-up is that Kipps, the novel’s narrator, seeks advice from a professional actor in order to spruce up his telling of an encounter with a ghost (that befell him years before) to his family. So the pro plays him, and he plays all the other roles, gathering confidence as he proceeds. Oxenbould masters this transition from awkwardness to excellence (in multiple roles) as the play rolls along, while Holcombe is also good as the pro who immerses himself in Kipps to the point of being consumed.

The trouble is that we aren’t consumed – at least not in the way we should be. Hill’s old-fashioned thriller is supposed to scare our socks off, and Mallatratt’s adaption is the second-longest running play in West End history, presumably because it can do the same. The problem with Mark Kilmurry’s production is the realisation of the titular ghost, a non-speaking role (played by a non-credited actor – she’s a ghost, after all). Whether she’s too literal, and needs to loom from dry ice, or too heavily veiled, and we need to glimpse the horror of her face, she has zero cold-shiver factor.

Garth Holcombe. Photos: Daniel Boud.

This is a shame as Holcombe and Oxenbould can rise to a level of conviction that withstands the closest scrutiny (the former’s breakdown scene apart). Kilmurry superbly marshals the actors through changing realities on Hugh O’Connor’s mutable set, culminating in Mallatratt’s ingenious ending. And because of the play-within-in-a-play, the lighting (Trudy Dalgleish) and especially the sound (Michel Waters) function almost as characters. If it doesn’t scare you, it still engages, and the rainy-night traffic is alarming enough, so maybe that’s a good thing.

Until July 24.