In an effort to beat the hype when the film-version with Daniel Ratcliff comes out next year, we visited The Woman in Black on the London West End. Warned that it was the scariest play on the West End, we entered the Fortune Theatre with beating heart…
The first person to take the stage is Arthur Kipps (Patrick Drury) he’s trying to tell us about his experience as a young lawyer attending to the affairs of Mrs Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. When he saw a young woman in black at both the funeral and at the empty house, he tried to find out who she is.
The Set Up
We can’t hear Kipps clearly, as he is told by a booming voice from the back (first fright!). The voice is the Actor’s (Anthony Eden) who Kipps has hired to help him recite the story. After it’s become clear that reading the story would take too long, they decide to play out the story. This much to the reluctance of Kipps: he only wants to exorcise a ghost from the past by finally telling his family and friends about it. Still The Actor persists: he will be taking on the part of young Kipps and Kipps all the other parts.
This and other theatrical concepts are set up in the first half of the show: the use of sound to set the scene is explained and Kipps is told to use imagination when speaking about a dog or a horse and cart. This comical exchange ensures relieved laughs when the aforementioned situations arise in the much darker second half.
There is a bit of explicit foreshadowing in the first half, perhaps it benefits the less regular theatre-goers or even less experienced ghost story reader; for the rest of the audience it feels a bit like spoon-feeding.
The tension is built throughout, sometimes artificially broken like with clanging of buckets that the Actor trips over. Nevertheless it makes you realise you are at the edge of your seat. The sounds in The Woman in Black are heightened to fright – what the young Kipps witnesses outside the house is truly ear piercing.
The visual effects are effective; a opening door, an abandoned rocking chair, it plays with what the audience cannot see. The Woman In Black is simple and old-fashioned: it’s been on stage for the last 23 years, it’s not hi-tech Ghost the musical. (On that note, simplicity needs to be careful: a left open curtain takes away the illusion. You’d expect a ghost to go through the curtain and so make sure it falls back behind you.)
Simplicity adds to the charm of The Woman in Black, just being a ghost story re-enacted by two men… or is it? The tension heightens to climax as the lines of the “real story” and the “enacted story” are blurred; but when it’s finally explained who the woman in black is, the foreshadowing of the first half takes a bit of the end’s horrific realisation.
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