1987 was a good year to be theatrical ghost. As perhaps the most successful stage spectre of them all, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera crept in to his second year of haunting Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End. And, looking Northward to Scarborough, Stephen Mallatratt began channeling the restless spirit of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, bringing the contemporary ghost story to the stage of the Stephen Joseph Theatre for its annual Christmas show.
The play has since become a theatrical institution, an unshakeable tombstone of suspense and horror. It continues to send shivers down the spine of West End theatre audiences, selling seats on its notorious reputation as the most terrifying ticket in town. And yet, which whilst there are undoubtedly occasional moments of brilliance, The Woman in Black feels more like a tired old fairground ghost train than the terrifying theatrical experience it bills itself as.
Arthur Kipps has a ghostly secret to share. Enlisting the help of a young actor, Kipps sets out to stage the sad tale of his encounter with The Woman in Black in a crumbling Victorian theatre, delving into his past in the hope that the retelling of the sinister encounter will help to exorcise both the dark spirit and his tormented mind. As the staging continues and the mysteries unfold, strange things begin to happen on the set which blur the lines between the past and the present, prompting questions of reality and fantasy, fact and fiction.
But, whilst the production builds suspense well and is acted well by Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden, it is an intrinsically unsatisfying piece of horror theatre. The first act is at times intolerably dull, lacking any great narrative thrust or artistry, and it is not until the last half hour where the piece comes even close to being the dark terror that its advertising promises. The shock-factor of the production is little more than over-amplified screams and a soundtrack that feels like the queue for the Edinburgh Dungeons, undermining the subtle horror of the piece in favour of cheap thrills.
Like any ghost story, The Woman in Black lives on purely through word of mouth alone: theatrically, it has little to offer outside of this perceived infamy.
The Woman in Black is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until 1 December 2012.