Review: Opening night of gripping ghost story at Buxton Opera House was ‘unsettling’

Mark Hawkins as The Actor. Photo by Mark Douet.Mark Hawkins as The Actor. Photo by Mark Douet.
Mark Hawkins as The Actor. Photo by Mark Douet.
With my mind already working overtime on what frights could be in store I flinch at the sight of the Pavilion Gardens fountain –illuminated at night it seems for a moment to resemble a moving white spectre in my peripheral vision.

A fittingly murky and damp hue hangs over the opera house as we enter – as if Buxton’s town centre is helpfully providing the exterior setting for tonight’s performance – the horror ghost story of The Woman in Black.

During the last 33 years the play has been staged more than 13,000 times in the West End and has been seen by more than seven million people in the UK.

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Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s best-selling novel tells the story of a lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a ‘Woman in Black’. He engages a young actor to help him tell his story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul.

Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins star in the play. Photo by Mark Douet.Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins star in the play. Photo by Mark Douet.
Malcolm James and Mark Hawkins star in the play. Photo by Mark Douet.

As the play opens we are asked to imagine the story being told in an empty theatre (although obviously the opera house is brimming this evening) and as the disturbing tale unravels that is not difficult to picture as an uneasy hush settles on the audience.

Imagination is key here – as there is intentionally minimalist staging – originally conceived as method of cost saving. However, it was retained as the effect is to allow lightning fast transitions between scenes and the action to keep moving at an unsettling pace.

When modern sound and staging effects are employed as the tale darkens - it makes for an effective combination and draws the viewer into the belief that the moments of shock and surprise are genuinely horrifying. It allows the borders between make-believe and reality to blur and makes the flesh begin to creep.

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Seats are rattled and there are yelps from the stalls, but those of a nervous disposition need not panic as there are lighter moments and the intensity of the jump scares is manageable.

Mark Hawkins as The Actor. Photo by Mark Douet.Mark Hawkins as The Actor. Photo by Mark Douet.
Mark Hawkins as The Actor. Photo by Mark Douet.

Meanwhile, the ornate classic architecture of our beloved opera house heightens the effect and helps transport us back to the late Victorian era – the time period in which the play is set and when the gothic novel was at it’s height.

Our accomplished cast for this evening’s performance (Tuesday) features Malcolm James – who returns to The Woman in Black having first played Arthur Kipps on a UK tour and then at the Fortune Theatre. His other West End credits include The Mousetrap at St. Martin’s Theatre and Volpone at the National Theatre. His on-screen credits include HBO’s My Dinner with Herve, Secret Invasion on Disney+, BBC’s Doctors and EastEnders and ITV’s Coronation Street and The Bill. On radio he has been heard on Letters to an Icon, The History Man and several afternoon dramas all on BBC Radio 4.

Alongside him is Mark Hawkins who first played The Actor in The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre and The Madinat Theatre. His other theatrical credits include The Railway Children at Kings Cross Theatre, Julius Caesar at The Globe, the UK tour of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the international tour of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His television credits include HBO’s The Nevers and ITV’s Vera.

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The tour cast is completed by Jon de Ville. His credits include The Sound of Music, Netflix’s Scoop, BBC’s Strike, understudy The Actor for Arthur Kipps and Dominic Price (The Woman in Black).

The production runs until Saturday, October 7. Contact the box office on 01298 72190.