Rating – ⭐⭐⭐
A West-End classic with a beloved, gripping story, The Woman in Black is a fitting show to return to after 18 months out of the theatre. Adapted from the Susan Hill novel by Stephen Mallatratt, the play is something of a constant in the theatre world. Not only has it been running since the 1980s, but it is one of those shows that has found its way into school textbooks, so that each performance is accompanied by a gaggle of schoolkids impatiently waiting to scream. That being said, as I walked into the auditorium, I was feeling much the same.
The curtain comes up on the elderly Arthur Kipps, here played by Robert Goodale, recounting his tale in hesitant, stilted tones. We watch a play within a play, where the traumatized Kipps attempts to purge himself of his story by recreating it to an audience. Eventually, it is decided that a hired actor shall play the part of the young Kipps, and, in turn, the elderly Kipps will play the assortment of other characters. This conceit doubtlessly adds an extra dimension to a well-trodden story, but that being said, after so long out of the theatre, I imagine I wasn’t the only one who was eagerly waiting for the action to get started, for the wonderful suspension of disbelief to take hold.
Eventually, this wish is granted and the action splutters into life. Antony Eden is engaging and charismatic as young Kipps, his voice booming out into the plush King’s Theatre as he takes us on his journey. A junior solicitor, Kipps attends the funeral of the late Mrs Drablow, along the way meeting a motley of characters who all express a guarded fear of the phantom figure haunting Drablow’s manor. There is neat direction by Robin Herford, tight physical sequences that zip the plot along at a wicked pace. It is also beautifully staged, a pared-back set eerily lit by candle-light, casting shadows that loom large over the actors. As Kipps hears spectral sounds from behind a locked door, we catch our first glimpse of the pale, shrouded woman in black and we get our first audience scream of the evening. This sets the tone for what is to come: a gratifyingly scary second half that made me wonder why horror is a genre often ignored by the theatre world.
As we return to the present day, the momentum slightly loses steam. Whereas the recounted ghost tale commands our attention through its vigour and suspense, the scenes either side of it fall a little flat. Nonetheless, this isn’t enough to dampen the experience. The play very much delivers on the anticipated fear factor, with just enough unpredictability to keep you on your toes.
Image credit: Tristram Kenton