To put it simply, Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black is both a masterpiece and a classic, and we are not only fortunate to have it but also the masterpiece and classic it has inspired… No, not the underrated 1989 TV film starring Harry Potter’s dad. No, not the 2012 cliché starring Harry Potter. No, definitely not the execrable 2014 sequel Angel of Death. Why don’t you stop saying these stupid things and just let me finish?
I am of course referring to Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 stage version, now the second longest-running non-musical play in West End history (after The Mousetrap).
In it, and in every other version of the story, a lawyer named Arthur Kipps finds himself in deep marsh-water when he is sent off to foggy Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral and sort the papers of the late recluse, Alice Drablow. The latter duty forces him out to her big and now abandoned house on the marshes, which is only accessible at low tide. But the place is haunted by the sinister Woman In Black, and Alice Drablow had a past which is literally coming back to haunt and hurt Arthur…
What makes the play different from every other version is the format. Taking its cue from the novel, the story is told by an older Arthur Kipps, now trying to exorcise the traumatic memories of his long-ago trip to the seaside. The book is that manuscript, the play is Arthur Kipp’s attempt to prepare the manuscript for a private reading, with the help of an enthusiastic (paid) actor.
The entire tale is therefore told by these two performers, with the actor who isn’t Arthur Kipps playing Arthur Kipps while Arthur Kipps plays everyone who isn’t Arthur Kipps, using his memories of the people he encountered all those years ago.
As such, although the two men playing them are aided by a great story and script and ingenious usage of set, sound and lighting, there is still a lot riding on their shoulders. However in this touring version of the play (which is directed by Robin Herford), Robert Goodale and Anthony Eden are more than up to the challenge, effortlessly mastering the humour, horror and pathos which have given the play the reputation it enjoys to this day.
The set, both real and implied works wonderfully, with the sound effects, as the Actor notes, doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of setting scenes, conjuring atmosphere and creating fear. Some of the other effects are however a little more hit and miss, with the fog and blackout in one scene obscuring the opening of the following scene in a way which felt more like a justified problem rather than a successful artistic choice. We also often see the Woman In Black before the characters do, meaning the audience jumped several times simply because of the actors doing so, rather than because of the Ghost.
To add to that, what we do see of the Ghost isn’t always particularly inspiring. She is, of course, played by a human being of flesh and blood, but it is the duty of the play to make us forget that fact, a job unfortunately made harder when she opens and closes her first appearance with a step to the left and then to the right as though she had both times tried to rectify missing her blocking slightly. These sudden moves towards the characters (of which we see more later) might have worked well on camera or if we ourselves were in the situation, but here they seem unmotivated character-wise, an attempt at something weird or frightening rather than the thing itself. This is a problem as the play is named after her character, however it is not a major one as her appearances are purposefully few and some of them work much better.
The strength of the script can be attested to by the play having run for almost forty years and this production is more than a match for the play’s reliance on, and perfect usage of, a few characters and the possibilities of stage visuals and sound. This play is a classic which I would urge anyone to seek out while they have the opportunity, and this cast and production have it in very safe hands.
A few technical in terms of the Woman’s direction and some of the effects must regretfully and reluctantly drop it down half a star but, if near Halloween this is enough to put you off a modern classic Ghost story in an almost flawless show, that’s your mistake.
Playing until the 16th October, more information and tickets can be found at https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-woman-in-black
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 12th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★