Occasionally a piece of theatre will catch the zeitgeist and garner such critical praise and audience fascination that its reputation is made in perpetuity. There are not many examples of such success but Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel is one. First produced in Scarborough in 1987, it has been running uninterrupted for over 20 years on the London stage and on its subsequent regional tours. This is testament to its enduring appeal.
On its first performance at the Arts Theatre in this incarnation, a large audience, comprised of a gratifying number of young people along with those folk whom one would more normally associate with theatre-going, approached the evening with a pre-disposition to enjoy themselves. Ready to laugh, ready to be frightened and some even ready to scream from the beginning, there was a clear sense of anticipation emanating from auditorium towards the stage. The expectation created by the play’s reputation was palpable. The audience was not to be disappointed. The production is in fine fettle.
The play itself is a curious beast and is not without its flaws and longeurs [especially in the initial stages] but it works a treat. It has a number of levels of reality through which we descend before the action really begins. It is almost as though we, the audience, are so keen to be scared that the production delights in withholding that experience until the last possible moment. It is provocative in the extreme with information, sentiment, atmosphere, humour and supernaturalism being gently added to the ever-churning mix. The ingredients are slowly melded together and the cumulative effect is ultimately that for which the audience has been craving and is all the more satisfying because of the wait.
The basic premise of the production is simplicity itself. Theatre does not need massive production budgets, slickly operated machinery or star names to be attractive and to do its job. As Antony Eden’s Actor reminds us, the imagination is a powerful ally. With the use of the simplest of sets, a few props, a couple of chairs, a wicker basket, a costume rail and very little else we are transported to a wealth of locations demanded by the story of Arthur Kipps’ terrifying experiences in the small community of Crythin Gifford. We believe that we see Kipps on a train, being transported by a pony and trap, asleep in a haunted house in the middle of a marsh. We experience graveyards, offices, hotels and we hear voices, screams and things that go bump in the night and we believe. It is a triumphant achievement. However, no suspension of disbelief exceeds that of our complete buying into the presence of Spider, the very real but totally imagined little dog which accompanies Kipps in his hours of torment.
Comfortable and secure in their own command of the play and its power, Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden are very good indeed. It is a joy to watch Forsyth blossom from the reticent, slightly bumbling Mr Kipps of our first acquaintance, through a range of characterisations to which, once again, the audience subscribe without a problem. It’s a real tour de force without appearing to be so. Eden’s Actor is full of slightly superior bonhomie which he skillfully turns first to doubt, as he begins his impersonation of Kipps, then to fear and lastly to tragic realisation as the final plot twist and its implications work its way into his consciousness. Not to be underestimated is how lighting and sound design add to the simple theatricality of the evening.
There is a beautiful irony that the audience, whilst being told in no uncertain terms how theatrical effect is manufactured, is completely unable to resist its power. At the end of the evening folk are jumping in their seats, screaming and are completely taken in by the preposterous events to which they have just been witness.