Set in Victorian England, and told in an Edwardian theatrical setting, Stephen Mallatratt's The Woman in Black, based on Susan Hill's novel, is a traditional tale of hauntings and ghostly revenge, which is portrayed here most imaginatively.
The play-within-a-play presents a wonderful challenge for the two actors who carry the story fairly smoothly along from its innocent beginnings to its chilling end, constantly dipping into the past and reappearing in the present. Seeking to lay the ghosts of his past to rest, solicitor Arthur Kipps (Robert Demeger) recounts his horrific experiences to an actor (Timothy Watson), who re-enacts the tale whilst the "real" Kipps brings to life the other characters met along the way.
The success of this production relies ultimately on the close teamwork exhibited by Watson and Demeger. The former sets the pace with a solid, reliable yet enthusiastic performance, while the latter shows great dexterity in conveying myriad personalities, each one very different from the rest and all presented with complete believability. Both actors turn constantly from this character to that, past to present, reality to re-enactment, and then leave the audience with the dawning of the awful truth that will become their futures.
Michael Holt's intriguing set uses props and furniture sparingly - although the stage seems always well filled - with a large wicker trunk becoming just about anything our imaginations will allow. Splendid lighting and sound designs (care of Kevin Sleep and Rod Mead, respectively) add to the spooky atmosphere.
The early scene-setting episodes are a tad drawn-out, but by the interval, the story picks up considerable pace, the audience swept along by the actors' contagious storytelling urgency.
While I wouldn't exactly call it terrifying (no more so than a fairground ghost train anyway), The Woman in Black does nonetheless manage to captivate - if not from the beginning, at least from a third of the way through. It's easy to see why Mallatratt's taut play has become one of the West End's longest runners and this touring version doesn't disappoint.