The Woman in Black – Fortune Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

 Writer:  Stephen Mallatrait

 Director: Robin Herford

Can The Woman in Black, re-opening at the Fortune Theatre, still deliver its thrills after a run of over 30 years? The answer is a resounding yes. This masterpiece of story-telling is as compelling as ever, theatre at its quintessential best.

Stephen Mallatrait, adapting Susan Hill’s classic book for Scarborough Theatre in 1987, gave the ghost story a new and highly effective framework which has stood the test of time. The fresh cast are superb. Terence Wilton is born to play Arthur Kipps, the reticent lawyer, burdened with a story which has long haunted him. Fresh-faced Max Hutchinson plays The Actor from whom Kipps seeks aid in articulating his tale.

The staging by Michael Holt is deliberately drab. Uncompromising lighting (designer Kevin Sleep) shows only a rack of old costumes and a wicker laundry basket on an otherwise empty stage. All speaks of the loss of magic when a theatre goes dark. Enter Kipps, determined to read his lengthy autobiographical tale but unable to produce more than a mumbled monotone. The Actor intervenes. He gives a short masterclass in the dramatic power of creating atmosphere. Suddenly we too see the festive Christmas scene of Kipps’ introduction. Kipps tries again. He is no better. We laugh. How will this distinctly underwhelming opening deliver its promised chills?

The Actor announces he will take over the part of Kipps in his youth, an eager young solicitor. We catch the moment where Kipps himself takes his first step as an actor: a pair of reading glasses transforms him like a mask. He starts, tentatively at first, to step into a number of roles, beginning with the bluff lawyer, head of the firm’s London office. He instructs the younger man to represent the firm at the funeral of an old client, Mrs Alice Drablow. He must visit her home, the remote Eel Marsh House, to sort out her papers. It’s far away, somewhere on the coast of the north east, accessible only by a causeway at low tide. It’s chilly, the coast subject to sea frets.

So far, so conventional. We are not going to be scared this easily. But the long train journey on a cheerless branch line begins to draw us in. Kipps puts up in the small market town of Crythin Gifford for the widow’s funeral. It is there he is aware of a strange figure – a veiled woman in black, her glimpsed face, as he describes it, drawn and cadaverous. The locals are distinctly wary, unwilling to talk of Eel Marsh House or the deceased Mrs Drablow.

As Kipps prepares to board the pony and trap which will take him across the causeway, we can see it all. How? This is the true magic of theatre. There are no fancy effects, just a powerful soundscape (designer: Sebastian Frost). And how evocative it is! From the clatter of London streets to the old steam train and now we are out on the lonely seashore, with its haunting cries of seabirds. Eel March House is empty. In its marshy grounds stands an old graveyard. Here the real story begins. The atmosphere intensifies, so much depending on unexplained noises and guttering lamps. There is a brilliant set piece by night which it would spoil the story to reveal It’s a measure of how invested the audience has become that there is a collective sigh of relief when Kipps is offered a dog, Spider, to keep him company.

But there is more, so much more, to come. It is a story that packs a huge punch. Only at the end is the full extent of the chilly reality revealed. Like the ending of the classic film, Don’t Look Now – another adaptation of the work of an English novelist – what is revealed draws us deeper than we could have imagined into the supernatural.


The Reviews Hub Score

Thrillingly chilly

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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