Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s best-selling novel returns to the West End with a special reopening at the Fortune Theatre. For director Robin Herford, the project was inspired by an innate urge to mount grandiose artistic output using scarce resources, an endeavour which led him to approach his friend, the late Stephen Malattrat, to adapt Hill’s story with a dozen odd characters into a brisk two-hander play. The show premiered in 1987 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough and transferred to London a year later, playing at the Lyric Theatre, Strand, the Playhouse and finally moved to the Fortune, where it’s been on for over thirty years.
Whereas the original plot of the novel focuses on the everyday happenings and conversations in a small English town haunted by a mysterious spectre, the stage adaptation is told from the perspective of lawyer Arthur Kipps (Terence Wilton) who recounts a ghastly tale from his past to guests over a Christmas dinner. He believes that his family was cursed by the spectre of a Woman in Black that began during his early days as a young solicitor in London, when he was dispatched to a remote corner of England to take care of a recently deceased client Mrs. Drablow’s estate. His visit had been met with hushed stares and stony silences from local townspeople who believed something sinister was at play in the area, accompanied by a sinking swamp and blinding fog that had led to many unfortunate accidents. Now a few decades later, Kipps has engaged a sceptical young actor (Max Hutchinson) to help him tell his terrifying story in an attempt to banish the fear that grips his heart. As Kipps and the young actor begin to reenact pieces from his troubling memoir, they find themselves reliving the grief, horror and fear held in Kipps’ memories. As the night goes on the line between make-believe and reality begins to blur, revealing dark secrets and happenings that go beyond reasonable explanation.
Terence Wilton delivers a remarkably charming performance as Arthur Kipps, delicately balancing the character’s initial reluctance to commit to what his memoir asks of him to embodying a multitude of different characters that make up the town of Crythin Gifford. Max Hutchinson’s portrayal of the enthusiastic young actor committed to the cause of proper storytelling is delightful and engaging to watch. The duo’s chemistry and coordination are evident in their movement and call-response to each other, with brisk stage transitions and switching of the narrator’s role between them. Michael Holt’s design makes effective use of the Fortune Theatre’s tight-knit layout to create multiple levels spanning Mrs. Drablow’s house, the marsh and the larger townscape. Most notable is the clever use of sparse stage properties to create offices, bedrooms and other immediate environments where the action takes place, an effort backed by Kevin Sleep’s sharp light design. Herford’s direction relies on the actors’ spoken word and body language to convey the emotional scales in the text, a process that takes some time to build up but rewards the audience immensely with some subtly placed visual tricks that draw genuine gasps.
To summarize, The Woman In Black is an ode to theatrical storytelling in its most essential form, asking the audience to surrender themselves and their imagination to a good story. Susan Hill’s fantastical tale of a small English town struggling with superstition and supernatural happenings finds a compelling treatment in this stage production.
You can watch The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre until 2nd April 2022. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-woman-in-black/fortune-theatre/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 7th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★