views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Woman in Black
The Fortune Theatre
29th November 2016

★★★★☆

Stuart Fox and Joseph Chance as Arthur Kipps and the actor

Photography © Tristram Kenton

Who doesn't love a good ghost story, eh? The Woman in Black has been capturing the public's attention since the early 1980s: first it was a book, then a play, then a film, another film and aways still a play, always still going strong. With a West-End run that's rapidly approaching three decades, quite simply, The Woman in Black is a tale that people still want to hear. Susan Hill's original Gothic novella is packed full of different characters, but Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation cleverly reduces it to a more simple two-hander. With a recent cast change, the dynamic has changed slightly and yet it's still what it's always been: old-fashioned storytelling done well.

Set in The Fortune Theatre some 100 years ago, The Woman in Black is a story told by a nervous Arthur Kipps (Stuart Fox) with help from a professional actor (Joseph Chance). Arthur's tale is a strange one, set back in the days when he is a young barrister and sent to Crythin Gifford to administer the estate of the late Mrs Drablow. Arthur is met with a less than friendly reception from the locals when he arrives. No one wants to talk to him about Mrs Drablow let alone accompany him to her house and help with the paperwork, not even for a generous fee. And there's a strange lack of children... Without saying much more, you can probably deduce a spoiler or too, but that doesn't really matter. Even if you know what's coming, it's still damn good spooky fun.

The action initially feels quite slow, with a repeated joke between the two protagonists lasting a touch too long for comfort. However, this is all deliberate in order to lull the audience into a false sense of security before the very first jump scene. Director Robin Hereford plays with the pacing here for maximum impact. Although I have no doubt that some of the screams are planted (there's a certain "theatrical" quality to them, shall we say?) there are also plenty of genuine shrieks of horror, followed up by the sort of nervous laughter that accompanies real fear. I don't spook easily myself, however plenty of my fellow theatregoers looked visibly shaken by the experience - including some rather burly gentlemen.

Joseph Chance and Stuart Fox as the actor and Arthur Kipps

Photography © Tristram Kenton

As far as West End shows go, The Woman in Black is fairly understated. Transferring from a regional theatre many moons ago, it's never had that big budget makeover and this is actually where its strength lies. There's no attempt to recreate the eerie Eel Marsh House with complicated set painting, rather the exterior is a simple yet effective projected online by lighting designer Kevin Sleep. As much as I am fond of animals on stage, the dog here is invisible and all the better for it. Hereford clearly knows that when it comes to a brilliant ghost story, it's all about the audience's own imagination. There's nothing so horrific as what we can create in our own minds by ourselves.

It's difficult to say too much without spoiling the mystery; suffice to say that even if you know the basic plot already, you'll still enjoy the execution. You can almost hear collective hive thoughts throughout of "don't do it" as the action unfolds and we powerlessly try to will Kipps' younger self into responding differently. The difference in demeanour between the two version of Kipps played by Fox is marked; the older man is anxious and fearful, whilst the younger man has more of a swagger to him, wearing the invulnerability of youth. This is mirrored in the professional actor's current day demeanour, Chance's every line imbued with confidence and purpose. Fox and Chance are a well-balanced double act.

Will this give you nightmares for weeks on end? Doubtful. But does The Woman in Black make for an intriguing show which is one of the best West End experiences on offer? Absolutely.

The Woman in Black opened on 6th June 1989 at the Fortune Theatre and is currently booking until 23rd September 2017.

Nearest tube station: Covent Garden (Piccadilly



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