The Woman in Black is remarkable in two ways. Yes, it’s a long running West End show that’s not a musical spectacular or The Mousetrap. More significantly, it’s a brilliantly theatrical experience, which is remarkable considering its origins as a book. The adaptation to the stage is so complete and integral to the work, it’s hard to imagine it having ever been anything
Having seen it on tour in modern venues I had always wanted to experience it ‘at home’ in the older Fortune Theatre. Host to treats I wish I could have witnessed such as Flanders and Swan and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe, it has its own rather magical history of laughter. Since 1989, though, The Lady in Black has haunted the place in more chilling style.
Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Arthur Kipps, who is sent to sort out the papers of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, entailing a visit to the spooky Eel Marsh House. The local village is akin to that in An American Werewolf in London, where any talk of the deceased and the house is quickly and mysteriously shut down. Add in a dangerous causeway to reach it, swirling mists, a graveyard and a child’s nursery and you pretty much have the classic ingredients for a classic ghost story. But this is so much more than that, thanks to Stephen Mallatratt’s brilliantly theatrical approach, which turns these familiar ingredients into an experience which engages the audience’s imagination to such spectacular effect that, as producer Peter Wilson said after the first evening of the re-opened show, “you scared yourselves”.
We are enormously helped in this by perfectly judged lighting and sound, whose timing is critical to some moments where you’ll be the most scared you’ve ever been in a theatre.
With all these ingredients in place, we find ourselves in the hands of Arthur Kipps, our nervous but reliable narrator, played by Terence Wilton. Kipps is at an empty theatre to be coached by ‘the actor’ (played by Max Hutchinson) in order to be able to recount his tale of his visit to Eel Marsh House. Wilton is so effective as the traumatised and hesitant Kipps that it comes as a real shock to see him assume in an instant the various other characters in his story. A scarf, a hat, a coat, a change in gait and we are in the company of someone else entirely. He also gets a moment when the child’s nursery is revealed where he has to list the numerous toys it contains. I’ve learned a few lines in my time and lists are just horrid to get in your head. Surely a little actors’ test added by Mallatratt! As his acting coach, Hutchinson is typically actorly and we feel confident in his presences. He has a rhythmic and almost percussive way with his lines. But the telling of the tale requires ‘the actor’ to assume the role of Kipps at the most dramatic moments. It’s a tribute not only to the writing but to Hutchinson’s engaging performance that you could tell the audience was gripped with fear and trepidation with him.
With some genuine jump-out-of-seat moments and a pervading atmosphere of suspense, this remains the benchmark for ghost stories in any medium and shows how live theatre can do things with you and to you like nothing else.