The opening night of Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s classic novel was jam-packed at The Lyceum theatre. A cynic may say that this is largely a result of the hype surrounding the February 2012 Hammer Film adaptation of the story starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe.
The stage production has been running since 1987; this exact version since 1989. I had seen The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre in London several years ago, so knew what to expect, but I predict that people who had previously seen the film would have been confused and bewildered; the plots vary significantly, and are both very different to the original 1983 novel.
In the play, the elderly Arthur Kipps seeks the assistance of a young actor to help theatrically tell the story of his encounter with The Woman in Black. He hopes that this will be therapeutic and ease the pain of the horrific events that resulted. Despite a turbulent, slapstick start due to Kipps’ infuriatingly pathetic acting, the storytelling gets into full swing with the actor playing the young Arthur Kipps and the older Kipps playing everyone whom he meets.
Perhaps the most evocative and eerie aspect of the stage adaptation is the merging of the fiction and reality within the narrative of Arthur Kipps’ memory. The woman in black’s erratic appearance and shrill cackling resulted in the majority of the audience shrieking in shock, gripping each other for moral support and literally sitting on the edge of their seats.
Director Robin Herford’s production utilises spooky silhouettes and moody lighting, creepy sound effects of creaking rocking chairs, music boxes and thunderclaps along with a very minimalist set to create an atmospheric yet bereft ambience at Eel Marsh House.
Without meaning to sound in any way patronising, Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden did a remarkable job as a two-man cast (with the help of the peripheral woman in black). At the curtain call, I was shocked when reminded that it was such a skeleton cast (no pun intended).
Whilst the performance is neither terrifying nor deeply disturbing, it is nevertheless ‘jumpy,’ engrossing and unnerving. The Woman in Black is a belated Halloween treat and a must-see for any lovers of gothic literature, horror and ghost stories. Watch at your peril.