The Woman in Black
Saturday 25 August 16:00pm
To my eternal shame, I’ve never read Susan Hill’s ghost novel The Woman in Black, first published in 1983. I had however, seen the 2012 film version starring Daniel Radcliffe. Whilst that version only manages a 6.4 rating on IMDB, it’s one of those few films I’ve seen that felt genuinely creepy with perfect jump scares.
I’d read mixed reviews about the stage show in the past, yet found myself accompanying a young person who desperately wanted to see it despite his life-long inability to cope with sudden loud noises and surprises. In fairness, the show cannot be clearer with their marketing and advertising. It clearly states that it is recommended for people aged 12 years upwards and features sudden loud noises and surprises.
The person I was with to my utter surprise managed to get through the entire show and thought it was brilliant. I attribute this astounding success to the wonderful customer support given by box office and front of house staff at the theatre. It is proof that sometimes people can achieve the usually unachievable with good support and adjustments put into place.
But how can what amounts to two actors and a wicker laundry basket keep an audience on the edge of their seat for two hours? The temperature in the auditorium was notably lower than other theatres. It was chilly, we already felt the crisp winter air despite the August heat outside. The set was draped in dusty dark hues. What was under the white sheets at the back? What was going to creep through the thick mist? Who is that floating through the auditorium? What was going to break the long silence whilst Arthur slept? And, because we’ve been told the show is scary, we’re already wired for it. It was brilliantly done.
It’s actually a humorous start. Stephen Mallatratt’s clever adaptation puts the story as a play within a play. Richard Hope is the elderly Arthur Kipps, who needs to tell his story. Mark Hawkins, with his beautifully enunciated cut-glass accent, is The Actor to whom he turns for help.
The Actor proposes a dramatisation, and much of the first half chops between a retelling of the story and the pair acting it out. It’s a clever feature which at times offers the audience a much-needed break from the tension.
The pair work beautifully together creating an icy atmosphere in the audience and a deeply rooted growing sense of unease. This is what makes the show clever. It’s understated and never once goes too far. Much of the fear relies on what we think is going to happen. The Woman in Black is barely on stage yet she is so feared. She causes the audience to shout out in fear, jump out of their skins. We are right there with Arthur Kipps.
It took a lot of self-control not to shout “no” when he starts to walk slowly up the stairs to the first floor. Quite why he doesn’t take the entire bundle of paperwork back to the mainland and work through it from there is beyond me, but then the show would be over much faster and by that point it’s already too late for him.
The final twist was obvious to me from before the interval, but then so was the murderer in The Mousetrap. That didn’t matter though. This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre with darkly woven storytelling where anything can happen at any time.
It’s a testament to the cast, creatives and original author Susan Hill, that 30 years after the play was first performed it’s still going strong. There’s no music, no singing or dancing. There’s no big effects, even the dog was mimed. It relies on traditional theatre techniques, silence and the occasional creaking of an empty rocking chair. It’s like spying through a window in time to the 1920s.
When you put this together with cast Richard Hope and Mark Hawkins, it creates a live show scarier than most of the horror films I’ve ever seen. Despite repeatedly reminding myself that it’s sound effects and acting, that it’s not real, there’s something by the end of the show that tells you that it just might be true. Even the programme hides the Woman deep within its pages.
Two days later, and I had the sudden urge to look over my shoulder. I was a bit afraid that when I did, The Woman in Black would be ready to jump out.
For more information or to book, visit: https://www.thewomaninblack.com
The Woman in Black is playing at the Fortune Theatre in London. Whilst we usually cover Bristol and the South West, occasionally we write about things we think are brilliant elsewhere in the UK.
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