The Woman in Black is a phenomenon. Now in its 23rd year at the Fortune Theatre, a quarter of a century since its first performance in Scarborough, this little gem may have a long way to go to catch The Mousetrap, but it is nonetheless as much a part of the West End furniture as Agatha Christie's hardy perennial. But is it still scary, after all these years?
The simple answer is an unequivocal “Yes”. And not only does it scare, but it also serves up a terrific night in the theatre which ’works’ on many levels.
One of the secrets of the production’s success is its very simplicity. In his programme notes the director, Robin Herford, describes how his "cut-price stocking-filler from Scarborough" was born of the necessity to fill a slot in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s seventy-seater studio's schedule, with minimal budget and resources.
Asking resident playwright Stephen Mallatratt for a ghost story, his writer quickly came up not only with Susan Hill's novel as the source material, but also a strikingly simple way of presenting the story and its dozen or so central characters - with two performers. So far so good. Herford had a small budget and Mallatratt came up with an idea which might even mean some small change - if it worked. Paramount was the need for a great script that could compensate for the lack of resources.
Mallatratt delivered. His tight script is a gift to director and actors. He immediately invites the audience to share in the one big conceit of the night: a troubled man has employed an actor to relate his story which is so horrifying, so haunting that it needs to be exorcised. Once we have accepted this we are "in", and we find ourselves in a theatre with the two performers, where a wicker basket, two chairs, a clothes rail and its contents are all we need to transport us through the story.
But we need more, don't we? We will still rely on the author of the piece to create scene and character. Mallatratt again delivers. His writing is verging on the poetic at times, particularly when he describes the deserted house and its environs where much of the action takes place. And he gives his characters distinctive voices through clearly delineated speech patterns, cadences and vocabulary.
Add to this atmospheric sound and lighting, the inventive use of gauze and the very creative deployment of a very few props and, with the audience already complicit, the scope of the evening is limitless.
But how does all of this promise translate into performance? The programme tells us that Herford has directed every cast that has taken custody of the production - and the current one is the 29th incarnation. Very good they are too. Ben Deery hits just the right air of theatricality as The Actor but restrains himself just enough to allow David Acton to really shine as Arthur Kips - the man whose story this is, and who starts the evening determined the story-telling will not be a 'performance' – and who blossoms into the most consummate character actor, portraying 10 or so different characters with great subtlety.
The simplicity of the play relies therefore upon the skills of performers and director, and these are on show in abundance. But it also requires the complicity of the audience and its collective imagination. The screams, shouts and drawing of breath were as spontaneous as they were harrowing, living proof of the success of the production.
Perhaps the evening’s greatest achievement is that it appears so fresh. While many other West End long-runners feel like museum pieces, preserved in aspic, this has an immediacy about it that means it could be in its early days, not the last days of its 29th cast's nine month stint. And whilst other productions rely increasingly on pyrotechnics, mechanics, projections, bells, whistles and enormous budgets, here is a good old-fashioned offering which stands or falls on theatricality of which Peter Brook would be proud: a brace of performers, a couple of chairs and an empty space.
Shows don't run for 23 years by chance. This is a winner on every level, and I wouldn't mind seeing it again in another 23 years time. I'm sure the opportunity will be there, even if I’m not.
Name of Show: The Woman in Black
Genre: Christmas ghost story
Playwright: Stephen Mallatratt
Premiered: 12 December 1987
This Production Opened: 7 June 1989
Tweet: Arthur Kipps' story is so haunting that he must cleanse himself by telling the story to family and friends - in its full horror.
Synopsis: Arthur Kipps engages an actor to help tell the horrifying story of his his experience in a haunted house and grounds. We watch the story - and the horror it carries - unfold.
- The famous rocking chair, rocking of its own accord.
Why See It: In a West End full of big budget epics, this is a good old-fashioned ghost story relying on two chairs, a wicker basket and a couple of excellent performances.
Caveat: Don't go if you are easily scared. This packs a genuine, scary punch.
- Although it has been in production for 25 years, it was only written to fill a gap in a Christmas schedule and in a tiny budget.
- The play is an adaptation of a short horror novel, and has now been subsequently adapted into a BBC TV serial and a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.
One of the most exciting, gripping and successful theatre events ever staged, The Woman in Black, now celebrates 25 years in the West End. 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. A lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spectre of a Woman in Black, engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul. It all begins innocently enough, but then, as they reach further into his darkest memories, they find themselves caught up in a world of eerie marshes and moaning winds. The borders between make believe and reality begin to blur and the flesh begins to creep ... 'A truly nerve-shredding experience' Daily Mail 'Don't go unless you like being scared out of your wits' Sunday Mirror 'The most brilliantly effective spine chiller you will ever encounter... if you haven't seen this show yet you are missing a treat' Daily Telegraph Please be advised that the venue do have large school groups attending the show for most performances
Fortune TheatreRussell Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2B 5HH
Ken Drury and Adam Best © PW Productions