From folklore in a rural village to Hollywood productions on the big screen, people love a good ghost story. Even those people that can’t bear the intensity will admit to the occasional intrigued peak over the pillow they’re clutching. One of the most famous ghost stories that has frightened generations is Susan Hill’s 1983 novel turned film and play, The Woman in Black.
The play unfolds around an elderly Arthur Kipps recounting a story from his days as a junior solicitor. After being summoned to attend the funeral of his client, Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, Arthur quickly realises that he’s not a welcome guest in her sinister home.
Julian Forsyth and Matthew Spencer take the roles of Arthur Kipps and The Actor. The pair showcase a masterclass in theatre, conveying the two hour long tale through the use of a minimal set and few props. The Woman in Black is staged as a play within a play, requiring the actors to be versatile to cover several characters, utilising just a basket, a clothing rail and a few chairs. Spencer does an effective job of convincing the audience that he’s a younger Kipps, animatedly reliving the experiences that the elderly Kipps finds far too traumatic to recount. The actors use every inch of the stage and even the stalls to bring the tale to life.
The small auditorium of the Fortune Theatre is the perfect venue for the play, not least because the theatre itself is rumoured to be haunted, adding to the gloomy ambience. The inventive use of lighting and sound creates an eerie atmosphere that encircles the audience. Smoke machines are deployed to fill the auditorium which heightens the suspense and mystery.
Director Robin Herford avoids the banal horror genre pitfall of relying solely on jump scares to extract a quick thrill from the audience at the expense of building genuine tension. The play conjured an enduring sense of foreboding, despite the fact that the Woman in Black only makes a few fleeting appearances. The first act of the play feels very narrative heavy, making it drag somewhat at times. In contrast, the second act is much more gripping. While the scenes between Kipps and the Actor provide important context, the performance could benefit from them being shortened to make room for more compelling theatre. The paradoxical use of humour would not usually complement this type of play, but there is some clever comedic moments that served to punctuate the mounting tension and give the audience a few moments of respite amongst the darker scenes.
This show will attract anyone that revels with fascination in all things paranormal, searching for an opportunity to experience the adrenaline rush that comes with being scared witless. It’s a testament to the chilling nature of the performance when half the audience jumped out of their skin after a loud sneeze in the auditorium during the interval. With a performance this frightening, there’s little wonder it remains one of the West End’s longest running plays.
Based on the original book by: Susan Hill
Adapted by: Stephen Mallatratt
Directed by: Robin Herford
Design by: Michael Holt
Lighting Design by: Kevin Sleep
Sound Design by: Sebastian Frost
Produced by: PW Productions
The Woman In Black is currently booking until April 2023. You can book directly via ATG here.