Note: The cast for this production has changed since the writing of this review. For current cast details, please see The Woman in Black listing entry.
The fact that London's theatreland is reputedly replete with ghosts - at least six of the major playhouses are said to be haunted - brings verisimilitude to The Woman in Black, a ghost story set in a creepy little theatre, not unlike the Fortune itself.
The play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from Susan Hill's novel, has all the staple ingredients of a classic gothic spine-tingler. There's the old dark house, lashings of spooky sea mist, a recently deceased Miss Havisham character, a faceless coachman, and a good old-fashioned curse. The only thing you don't get is the incessant clank of chains being dragged along deserted corridors.
Although Hill wrote The Woman in Black in the '70s, it feels like a synthesis of dark Victorian literature: a pinch of Dickens, a measure of Bram Stoker, and some Henry James thrown in for good measure. There s a twist waiting around every corner, and a denouement that will turn your blood as cold as the Haagen-Dazs they serve during the interval.
The core of the play recounts the tale of the unfortunate Arthur Kipps (Paul Webster), a solicitor's clerk dispatched to a Northern market town to settle the estate of one Alice Drablow. Here he encounters the eponymous phantom, but any attempts to enquire after her are stonewalled by the locals. Kipps puts up at the Drablow ancestral pile, Eel Marsh house, accessible only at low tide across the ominously named Nine Lives Causeway.
Marooned by thick fog, the young solicitor is forced to suffer certain spectral goings on, and although he eventually discovers the meaning of the things that go bump in the night, it is, by then, too late.
Under Robin Herford's direction, much of the play's action takes place outside the proscenium arch, the actors using the aisles and orchestra pit, all to maximum effect. Michael Holt's set brings the requisite gloom to the production, but is also a masterpiece of improvisation. At various points in the action, a large wicker hamper doubles as a bed, desk, railway carriage, and even a pony and trap.
Of the cast, Jamie Newall as The Actor, is the paragon of an English thespian, while Webster is suitably versatile in his many guises.
The Woman in Black already seems to be a permanent fixture in the West End (opened in 1989), a mandatory stop along the tourist trail, and almost a site of pilgrimage for coach parties and out-of-towners. Like that other enduring favourite, The Mousetrap, this effective little shocker should run and run.