The Woman in Black

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

27/06/2007 - 01/07/2007

Civic Theatre, cnr of Queen Street & Wellesley Street West, Auckland

14/06/2007 - 24/06/2007

Westpac St James, Wellington

04/07/2007 - 08/07/2007

Production Details

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill
Directed by Robin Herford

Set design: Michael Holt
Lighting design: Damien Cooper
Sound design: Michael Waters

Produced by newtheatricals, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and the Singapore Repertory Theatre

West End Theatre Sensation Comes to NZ

London’s West End Sensation, The Woman in Black is acclaimed as one of the most exciting, gripping and successful theatre events ever staged. More than three million people in London’s West End have seen The Woman in Black – now in a stunning new production, it’s New Zealand’s turn.

The Woman in Black, starring two of London’s finest leading men, Robin Herford and Mark Healy, comes to New Zealand stages in June and July.

The Woman in Black has been playing in the West End for 20 years. It is the world’s second longest running play.

Unanimously acclaimed by the critics, Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s best selling novel combines the power and intensity of live theatre with a cinematic quality inspired by the world of film noir.

“The entire audience screamed in horror.” SUNDAY MIRROR (LONDON)

“I have never witnessed an audience jump and gasp in such genuine shock as they do here.” DAILY TELEGRAPH (LONDON)

The Woman in Black is a ghost story – the story of Mrs Alice Drablow and a young solicitor sent to settle her deceased estate. His task is a lonely one and he has a terrible and growing sense of unease. And then he glimpses a young woman with a wasted face, all dressed in black. The locals cannot or will not give him answers.

So he waits until he sees her again, and she slowly reveals her identity to him – and her terrible purpose. Relying on atmosphere, on hints, glimpses and suggestions, on what is shadowy, heard and sometimes only half-seen, The Woman in Black chills the audience as it builds to its horrifying climax.

“… a nerve shredding show….Victorian creepiness wraps around you like a sea of mist”

This new production of The Woman in Black is produced by newtheatricals, Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and the Singapore Repertory Theatre.

The Woman in Black is at
The Civic, THE EDGE in Auckland from 14-24 June,
the Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch from 27 June to 1 July and
the Westpac St James Theatre, Wellington from 4-8 July.

Book through Ticketek or 0800 TICKETEK (0800 842 538). For more information visit   

“Victorian creepiness wraps around you like a sea of mist.” Daily Express (LONDON)
“A triumph of suspense. Impressive, edge-of-your-seat theatre.” Sunday Herald Sun
“A theatrical phenomenon” Herald Sun  

Robin Herford
Mark Healy
Kate O'Rourke

Theatre ,

1 hr 40 mins, no interval

Nothing special

Review by Lynn Freeman 11th Jul 2007

Slap ‘West End’ on the advertisement for a touring play from London and you’re in with a very good chance of getting good houses.  The Woman in Black is the second longest running show on the West End after The Mousetrap – but does that make them spectacularly good works or easy to watch crowd pleasers?  The latter in my view.  This touring show was workmanlike, well acted, well directed and nothing special.

This is classic ghost story material from a rambling mansion to misty boggy grounds.  And, of course, a ghost.  It’s not a tough genre to write,  the ghost story. This has the mandatory number of blackouts and sudden very loud noises designed to draw out yells from the audience.  But that’s not clever writing, just technique.  The story itself is ho hum despite the ‘play within a play’ contrivance. Far from gripping my seat, I was nodding off in it.

It’s no reflection on the two actors who both have long associations with the play, though this is a new production of it.  Robin Herford has the most fun as Arthur Kipps, the man whose story is told in the play.  He has asked an actor to read this sad tale out loud which ends up as a performance of a kind.  In doing so, Kipps (and Herford of course) ends up performing many character roles. 

Mark Healy plays the actor, a role he’s performed on the West End so it’s one he performs smoothly and confidently.  But it has that too slick and comfortable feeling to it, like the two of them are churning out yet another rock solid performance without being hugely engaged. 

A couple of people were so thrilled on the last night that they stood up and cheered.  But this is no better than what we see done here by our own actors, though this show’s bigger budget means some pretty expensive visuals.


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Special effects play star role

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 06th Jul 2007

Wellingtonians are in for a treat over the next few months with a number of overseas theatre company’s coming into town with prodigious theatre productions, the first of which is The Women In Black, a play which has had a very successful run for the last 20 years in London’s West End. 

Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, it is a ghost story full of mystery and intrigue which this production exploits to the full. The setting is a run down theatre where a middle aged lawyer, Arthur Kipps, (Robin Herford) is seeking to lay to rest once and for all the ghosts of his past.  He engages the services of an Actor (Mark Healy) to re-enact his story, making the Actor take on the role of him as a young man while Kipps brings to life the other characters they met along the way.  

At first sceptical, the Actor soon becomes embroiled in Kipps’ terrifying and tragic tale and the further they delve into the recesses of Kipps’ mind the more the line between reality and memory becomes blurred. Central to Kipps’ tale is the Women in Black (Kate O’Rourke) who moves in and out of the story in ghostly fashion, her identity revealed in truly dramatic fashion in the final moments of the play. 

Running for just under 2 hours with no interval the play makes great demands on the two actors to play numerous characters which in this production Herford and Healy do with consummate ease.  Both have great stage presence and good audibility, often a problem with overseas actors in the Westpac St James Theatre, and work exceptional well as a team slowly building the tension and suspense through to the climatic ending. 

But it is the multi-functional set of levels and gauzes, evocative lighting and spine chilling sound effects that are the real stars of this show.  Combined together like a Peter Jackson film set, they enhance but never over power the actors to make this an engaging, thought provoking but highly entertaining piece of theatre.


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Cleverly contrived multi-layered entertainment

Review by John Smythe 05th Jul 2007

The phenomenal success of this show must be what most playwrights dream of. Twenty years ago it was commissioned as a Christmas season ‘stocking filler’ in Scarborough, for the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 70-seat studio space (that’s smaller than BATS or Circa Two).

Director and actor Robin Herford – artistic director at the SJT while Alan Ayckbourn was on sabbatical at the National Theatre in London – had asked resident playwright Stephen Mallatratt to come up with something necessarily low-budget for the studio. Mallatratt’s answer was an adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black – a fairly standard ghost story about a young lawyer who goes a remote village to settle the estate of a deceased recluse who lived beyond the marsh, in mystery-shrouded Eel Marsh House, only to uncover a tragic tale and experience a haunting in the process.

A surprise hit, it transferred to the West End and has been playing there ever since. It has also run 10 years in Mexico, been translated into at least 12 languages and has been performed in 41 countries – 42 including NZ? – playing to more than 3 million theatregoers and counting.  

Mallatratt meets the novel’s multi-character and location challenge by having Arthur Kipps (here played by Herford himself) – the now older lawyer, desperate to exorcise the spectre by telling his tale publicly, in a handily spooky old theatre – hire an Actor (Mark Healy) to help him out.

Thus the adaptation begins as non-theatre: a fumbling mumbler having to be coached by The Actor to avert the threat of a turgid 5-hour reading of the prose tome toted by the lawyer. "Consider your audience!" is The Actor’s mantra, followed by, "We’ll make an Irving of you yet" (cf: Henry Irving, famed actor-manager of the Victorian era). Kipps bleats he has no desire to be an Irving but the magic that is theatre weaves its spell …

The Actor takes the role of Kipps and Kipps gets to play all the incidental character roles, experiencing the alchemy of being transformed simply by donning a pair of spectacles, for example … The sorcery of make believe is made manifest before our very eyes. This is the simple – some might say prosaic – device that renders fascinating for the average punter what would otherwise be a run-of-the-marsh ghost story.

Two other players are crucial. The resident light and sound technician, unseen, who apparently lives only to serve the art form, and The Woman (Kate O’Rourke) whose appearance carries a terrible curse to those who look upon her. In the book, the curse remains at arms length, transferred unwittingly and with awful future consequences from Kipps to The Actor. In this live theatre version, we too see her, so the implication is that we too will suffer the curse. Nasty.

Meanwhile the tale unfolds with an increasing theatricality that manages to mask the fact that it neither offers any great insight into the human condition nor explores themes that resonate much beyond itself (usually a pre-requisite for any story of lasting value). In Michael Holt’s theatre-within-a-theatre set, Damien Cooper’s flat white working lights and total blackouts give way to subtle atmospheric lighting and ghostly projections, enhanced by Michael Waters’ dynamic sound design.

Combined with a text that is extremely heavy in narrative exposition, the trick of contrasting non-theatrical sight, sound and action with extremely dramatic moments is often employed to entertaining effect. But is it, as the crit-quoting publicity claims, "a truly nerve-shredding experience"? My companion and I, and friends we conferred with after, found it was not but there were also reports of others who jumped, gasped and even feared they might have nightmares.

The biggest shock for me was that when they took their curtain calls, Herford and Healy did not acknowledge their technical operator: a gesture that has become the norm in NZ theatre and which was especially deserved in this technically exacting production, even more so given the role is not credited in the programme.

Also elitist on the face of it was their failure to include Kate O’Rourke in any of their curtain calls. If this was to preserve the ‘was she or wasn’t she there?’ mystery/mystique, I find it misguided. As previously discussed in a Forum on this site (To bow or not to bow), curtain calls serve in part to mark the moment when make-believe gives way to the real world once more. And given the threat implied for the progeny of those who, in the world of the story, see The Woman, it is even more essential we clearly see that she was an actress playing a role.

All that said, The Woman in Black is cleverly contrived to deliver a multi-layered evening of entertainment. And for playwrights aspiring to crack such a hit to assure their financial security, the biggest mystery will remain: why has this one made it so far ahead of the thousands of plays that are clearly superior in art, craft and depth of perception?


John Smythe July 7th, 2007

The point B M Morton and I are making, Martyn, is that we don’t see the actress out of role in the curtain call. Having her ‘in-role’ manifestation appear while the other actors take their bows compounds the threat because not only we are still not released from that part of the make-believe, but the cause of the curse is reinforced. So woe betide anyone subconsciously susceptible to supernatural auto-suggestion. The more I think it through, the nastier it seems. Yes, as Shane points out above, Court, Circa and Centrepoint Theatres have all produced it professionally in NZ. The Circa production was directed by Cathy Downes with John Callen (Kipps), Stephen Lovatt (Actor) and Perry Piercy (Woman), and it opened 18 November 1989 in the Harris St space. Can anyone supply similar details for the Court and Centrepoint productions? And as Mark Harris notes above, when the amateur rights were released further Wellington productions were mounted by Stagecraft and Khandallah Arts.

martyn roberts July 6th, 2007

I saw this in Chch and can tell you that Kate - 'Woman' does appear in the curtain call. She appears behind the gauze in a faint 'ghostly' light. You have be looking in the right place and it is quite a spooky thrill when you notice. By the way I believe Circa did this way back in the old site (89 90?) so it will predate any mid nineties version by a number of years...

B M Morton July 6th, 2007

I think the demystification aspect – letting the audience into secrets of how theatre works (sort of) – has something to do with its success. It’s a bit like a magic show where the magician stuffs up accidentally on purpose, reveals how certain things are done, then confounds us with an illusion that transcends explanation … Except I agree there is an implied threat in leaving The Woman out of the curtain call. Presumably they’re trying to say she wasn’t really there, so if we saw her the curse has been passed on to us too – that is, our children will die. As you say, “Nasty”! Given all the demystification at the start, it seems especially perverse not to end with it too.

John Smythe July 5th, 2007

Thank you Mark and Shane for responding to my '?'. I remain fixated by the mystery of what exactly has conspired to make this such a money-spinner; such a longterm employer for so many people. Is it the original story, the dramatisation, this production sourced back to those who first made it, the marketing ... all, some or none of the above ... something else again ...?

Shane Bosher July 5th, 2007

Court, Circa and Centrepoint Theatres have all presented professional productions of it.

Mark Harris July 5th, 2007

"and has been performed in 41 countries - 42 including NZ? " It has been performed in New Zealand but I'm not aware of a professional production. The first production in NZ was mine, for Stagecraft in Wellington, and was in the old Tonks Avenue house which added heaps of atmosphere. 95 or 96 from memory. I recall Peter Meikle rang me from Auckland the following year to get hold of the sound tapes for a production up there, and someone else rang from down south for the same thing. There was also a later production at Khandallah Arts Theatre, that Kathi George and Mark da Vanzo directed. I wasn't able to help with the sound as we had all the sound effects ("Recorded sound, Mr Kipps!") loaded on a PC and played via a MIDI keyboard. A little hair-raising as the keyboard would only load up one scene at a time, which took 30 seconds, and on gap was only 32 seconds long!

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Expectancy and suspense with style

Review by Lindsay Clark 28th Jun 2007

Who does not relish a good ghost story? Moreover, the Isaac Theatre Royal, itself redolent of an era when belief was probably easier, has to be a splendid venue for this touring production.

If you find yourself in the audience, you will be one of millions who have gone along to surrender their imaginations to the pleasures of unease through this dark tale of insatiable revenge. It was adapted twenty years ago, as a low-cost high-interest thriller, commissioned by Robin Herford himself. Now in its nineteenth year on the West End, it has been toured extensively, most recently in Australia. The lure has been truly tested and the attentive audience for the opening of this Christchurch season did not resist.

In the play, events unfold in an empty theatre, where an actor is to ‘advise’ a traumatised lawyer how to deliver his written account of … But we are tantalised by several false starts while he gathers his nerve. Vague unease builds to terror in the course of his narrated encounter with a vengeful ghost, as he tries to settle affairs on an isolated estate .The classic elements of nineteenth century English spookery are here – misty marshes, nights in a haunted house, a shadowy apparition – but relying on masterly understatement, it still works pretty well. 

For a start there are indisputably accomplished  performances from both Robin Herford (the ‘victim’) and Mark Healy (initially at least, the ‘adviser’), who carry the story and multiple roles with the patina of refined experience. As the eponymous apparition, Kate O’Rourke glides with soundless menace like something from a bad dream.

Our sense of uncertainty is teased at every opportunity by writer, director and actors alike. We are in a grand old theatre, warm and real, certainly. But we are also looking deep into the area beyond the proscenium arch, back in time to another proscenium (the empty theatre) and beyond that to the deserted, haunted house, the churchyard, those terrible marshes where the sound of desperate horses, of screams and heartbeats come out of the mist. Perhaps the familiarity of these devices makes it all the more easy to be carried away. Expectancy and suspense are powerful engagers.

This careful management of action and word is matched by the palette of lighting designed by Damien Cooper and sound from Michael Waters used to establish both setting and mood. Silences are allowed to bloom into uncertainty. Shadows are at once fearful and revealing.

Simple enough tactics but shaped with stylish ease.


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Laid on thick

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 17th Jun 2007

While I didn’t scream or jump out of my skin during The Woman In Black – which is billed as "thrilling", "nerve shredding" "ghost story with real chills" – I did, however, enjoy and appreciate this polished night at the theatre.

Primarily because, as all in our group remarked at the end of the night, it was refreshing to hear an acoustic performance by actors in a large space. Hearing dialogue devoid of amplification is becoming a rare thing in Auckland’s bigger theatres. The net result was that the audience had to listen, and listen they did. (Meaning the usual rude interruptions by that small but annoying group, who forget to turn their cell phones off, was even more pronounced.)

Written by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987, in the structure of a ‘play-within-a-play’, and a set that is a proscenium arch within a proscenium arch, The Woman In Black has been seen at London’s West End by over 3 million people. There is no doubt this very Victorian, very English piece of theatre, with its tidy story and structure, and highly descriptive, floral language, will appeal to a certain audience throughout New Zealand.

The play recounts a lawyer’s harrowing experience when he visited a remote farm, to finalize the deceased estate, through a series of acting classes, where a drama teacher helps him role-play his ‘story that must be told’.

In general, the employment of simple conventions and tricks of traditional theatre, such as representative garments for different characters and minimal props put to maximum use, is also a pleasant change from heavy reliance on technology to support a performance.

On saying that, the immaculate sound design by Michael Waters and refined, evocative lighting design by Damien Cooper, both support the actors effortlessly, adding greatly to the overall atmosphere throughout.

But at the end of the day, being only a two-hander, the success of the night rests on the shoulders of the actors. In this new production of The Woman In Black, both performers, Robin Herford and Mark Healy, are outstanding. In the dual role of Director, Herford also employs judicious blocking and use of props, in an effective, efficient manner.

While only ever lurking in the shadows, in the role of the woman causing all the angst, Kate O’Rourke also gives a perfectly timed, supportive performance.

Even though at the beginning of the play, Mark Healy is suitably pompous as the high status teacher and Robin Herford is suitably bumbling as the tentative pupil, Mallatratt takes too long to set up the structure. His script becomes overly burdened with "Ivory clad monasteries" and "praying for god’s protection on us all".

However, once the premise is established, the pace picks up, the sound tracks take effect, the characters come to life, the story begins, and we are on our way. Even though the journey is engaging enough, and there is a twist in the plot, Mallatratt lays it on thick, right from the start, leaving little to the imagination. We know where we are going and we know where we’ve been.


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