Robin Herford’s production of The Woman in Black has been terrifying audiences in the West End for 23 years, making it one of the longest-running plays in London. Adapted from the novel by Susan Hill, this play spins a tale steeped in the macabre, focussing on Arthur Kipps (David Acton) and his attempt to exorcise his demons by letting his story be told.
It begins light-heartedly, with a young actor (played by Ben Deery) despairing over the elder Mr. Kipps’ monologue and entreating him to ‘think of the audience’. The amusement is drawn from this meta-theatrical aspect, but also from Acton’s delivery, which is spot on, equal parts timid and protesting, with moments of brilliance shining through. However, the fun doesn’t last, and the audience is not so much eased as dropped kicking and screaming into a spine-chilling tale of gothic houses, looming sea frets, and a ghostly figure steeped in tragedy.
The real triumph of the production comes from the sound and lighting departments. While the acting is very good – and it is difficult to sustain convincing terror for two hours – the dialogue drags in places, particularly at the beginning, and I found myself zoning out at times. But the technical effects are put to invaluable use in a production that places such importance upon the evocative, the sensational, and the imagination. Sound clips realise the hustle and bustle of busy early 20th century London, as well as portraying different modes of transport, busy hotel dining rooms, and, most effective of all, playing out the tragedy through ghostly wails, shrieks, and howling gales whistling through the eaves, contributing a very Brontë-esque touch of the sinister.
With the dim lighting and the smoke rolling out from the bowels of the stage and filling the auditorium, coupled with the creaking and groaning of what has to be one of the ricketiest theatres in London, the audience cannot help but be on edge, and I jumped so hard I nearly fell out of the Upper Circle. It is spoiled somewhat by the five minutes of ‘shushing’ that follows every scream: some of the dialogue is lost, and it cannot help but be made laughable if every moment of suspense is ruined. But this is hardly the fault of the production, and the audience reaction is a huge part of the appeal, feeding into the atmosphere so that you end up expecting something to jump out of every blackout.
I must confess, I don’t usually go in for horror, and I had doubts that a ghost story delivered on stage could work as well as one on screen, but I was happily contradicted. Though the dénouement is perhaps a touch predictable, and the play slow to kick off, there is a reason this play has stood the test of time. See it if you dare, but be sure to look behind you when you leave, for you never know what’ll loom at you out of the London fog…
Image credit – SpirosK