Last night I was fortunate to be invited to watch The Woman In Black, currently playing at the Fortune Theatre in London (and incidentally where it has been playing at since 1989).
The Fortune Theatre is a very small (432 seat) venue, and thus an ambient and snug environment for the telling of a good old terrifying ghost story!
The original short novel was written by Susan Hill back in 1983, with the stage adaptation written by Stephen Mallatratt a few years later.
Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose. Years later, as an old man, he recounts his experiences to an actor in a desperate attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past. The play unfolds around the conversations of these two characters as they act out the solicitor’s experiences on Eel Marsh all those years ago.
As an additional twist added in for the stage play, the character of Mr Kyps enlists an actor to play himself, whilst he takes on the role of the additional characters. Personally, I think that I would have preferred the play to have kept to the novel and had Mr Kyps reprise his own story. Whilst I can see that it is deemed necessary to have a younger man act his part for the re-telling of the story (which happened in Mr Kyps’ younger days), I found the occasional breaks a tad distracting, and would rather have had gone with one big performance rather than several smaller chunks – though I hasten to add that this is more personal preference rather than any substantial criticism.
I liked the fact that the play is performed on a stage on a stage (that is, the setting of the play is on a stage in a performance space… which in turn allows for a little interaction with the real audience (though the characters are alone in their space) and allows for a potential break down of the fourth wall in some ways).
When the scary stuff starts later on, I think that the break down of the fourth wall really helps, as it allows the actors to acknowledge and react to the audience screams of shock and horror.
The story moves a long at a suitable pace, and I thought that the play was of a good length, and especially liked the small cast that the play enlisted; just two actors, and the vision / ‘Woman In Black’.
Full credit goes to Julian Forsyth (Mr Kyps) and Christopher Naylor (‘The Actor’) who were both tremendous in their roles, and really managed to captivate their audience.
I thought that the stage space was used well, and the use of props was imaginative.
Having heard a lot on the reputation of The Woman In Black as a scary play, I was perhaps a little disappointed not to have come out of the theatre a gibbering wreck heh! Sure, if it’s dark and something bangs, I’ll jump like everyone else, however I think that there could have been more than smoke and screens to ramp up the fright factor if I’m honest.
I’d suggest something along the lines of The ‘Vision’/The Woman In Black making subtle appearances in the auditorium amongst the audience themselves, or perhaps there is away with mirrors so that only a small section of the audience at a time can see the outline of the vision from the stage. It’d be terrifying if, when the lights came back up after one of the momentary periods of darkness, the Woman In Black was stood right behind you!
Also, and whilst I’m being overly picky on this, perhaps more in the way of smoke and lights around the auditorium and maybe the use of surround sound speakers for the sound effects would benefit/enhance the experience further.
Most of my friends who have seen this have said that they were scared witless when they came out of the theatre, and so perhaps I’m just being a little tougher and more cynical than my friends are heh.
All in all, I thought that this was a marvellous play, and one of my recent favourites. I love these Victorian-style ghost stories, and I think that you can draw a few subtle parallels between the original story and Emily Bronté’s Wuthering Heights.
If you have opportunity to see this play, I’d heartily recommend it as being one of the best pieces of straight theatre in the West End at the moment!
Intelligently staged, acted out with a great degree of competence, and an absolute pleasure to watch.
There is a touring production set to hit the UK during 2009. Details have yet to be announced (I presume it’ll be a Live Nation regional theatres tour) – click here to visit the official Woman In Black website to check for more info.
The show lasts for approx. 2 hours (including interval).