James Watkins’ feature adaptation of the ‘The Woman in Black’, based on the novel of the same name by Susan Hill, hits UK theatres on 10 February and so this reviewer thought it best to explore the original sources of inspiration for the new Hammer Films production. Obviously bypassing the original novel itself (I mean who has the time these days for books) I’ve gone straight down to London to check out the long-running stage show based at the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden.
The show which has been running in London’s West End since 1989 was written for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt and based on Hill’s novel, released 6 years prior. The show is a live theatre experience which utilises its snug theatre to drive an unsettling tingle down the spines of the young and old. The show employs minimalist sets and, for the majority, just two actors. The performances are solid and Ben Deery as The Actor is incredibly engaging as is David Acton, who plays the role of Mr Kipps, who manages to effortlessly sweep into a barrage of other characters with attached accents.
So here's a quick rundown of the story. 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.
Not being familiar with the book I understand the play itself with its “play within a play” concept was really a way in which each act could be more accessible to an audience and cater an uncomplicated style of storytelling with reduced set pieces, and even actors required. But this minimalism does by no means diminish the terror and ever-building apprehension that this polished experience offers its participating audience.
But I bet what you’re really here trying to find out is how ‘shit-your-pants’ creepy is the actual woman in black. Well, let me tell you when the ‘woman’ does appear, which is in typically understated and more importantly unexpected moments, she does deliver. The pale-faced old bint pops up every now and then to put the frighteners up poor Mr Kipps in a classically threaded haunted house tale.
The show makes use of fear-provoking sound and light effects to really help shock its pant-wetting audience and pulls each shocking moment off perfectly. The ominous spectre story itself is as unnerving as the play with the unsettling underscore of death and disconcerting seclusion. The overall tension within the theatre on the evening of the performance I witnessed was heightened even more so due to the high turnout of young children whom were agitated throughout the piece that were obviously out for an evening school trip. And when you’re seated next to one such petrified girl who was jumping and jerking around like a spasming potato every well-executed scare becomes an even more frightening experience.
Book your tickets now at: http://www.thewomaninblack.com/