“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts …”
Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel has all the elements of your classic Gothic spine-tingler:
1) An eerie house in a desolate location? Check.
2) Suitable weather, ie: mist, murk, drizzle? Check.
3) A hero who doesn’t turn back at the first (second, or even third) sign of spooky goings-on? Check.
4) The obligatory hooded figure stalking graveyards and other suitable locations? Check.
Beyond the Nine Lives Causeway stands the imposing Eel Marsh House, home to the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Junior solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to attend Mrs Drablow’s funeral and sort through her papers. The locals are cagey and the fog rolling; all in all there is definitely something strange in this neighbourhood.
In an interesting twist, we are not presented these facts as events unfolding but as a rehearsal of a theatrical telling of them. Mr Kipps (Robert Demeger) has approached a young Actor (Peter Bramhill) to help him prepare for a recital of his tale to his friends and family, an attempt to finally lay to rest the “terrible things” he experienced.
In this modern age of 3D, CGI, Stop Motion Capture jiggery-pokery, it is refreshing to see something that doesn’t rely on expensive special effects.
It is in this apparent simplicity that it works. Not bogged down by extravagant sets or long scene changes, Michael Holt’s design is appropriately ominous and makes the most of a handful of props – one simple hamper becomes a pony and trap, desk, bed, train carriage and so on.
Where the chills are concerned - I can’t give too much away, but the play is at its most effective in what you don’t see but think you might. A shadow here, a creaking there, the sweet tune from a child’s music box …
Director Robin Herford commissioned and helmed the original production, so you know you’re in confident hands. Demeger and Bramhill seem comfortable in their roles, both giving strong performances. Act One is low on scares and does drag, but the pace picks up in Act Two.
The Woman in Black sells itself as ‘the most terrifying live theatre experience!’. Its literature boasts that millions of theatregoers have “lived to tell the tale”. Here lies its true masterstroke. The play lives or dies on the atmosphere, the tension generated in the auditorium. Just by turning up you expect to be scared stiff.
The merest hint of a door slam or rapid blackout drew gasps, so by Act Two the screams from – mostly - teenage girls (the play is a set text for schools) were drowning out the dialogue.
Is this because it is genuinely petrifying? No.
Does that really matter? Not really.
Enter into the spirit (no spooky pun intended) and you’ll have a fun night out at the theatre.