Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Review: 'The Woman in Black' at the Fortune Theatre, 13th December 2016

It's been 27 years since the West End was first graced by the ethereal presence of Stephen Mallatratt and Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. It's longevity (second only to the apparently immortal The Mousetrap) is a testament to its popularity, the play carving out a reputation as London's go-to scary theatrical experience. 

And yet I'd never seen it. I haven't even seen the cinema adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. In fact, the one encounter I have with the material was a press-screening of cash-in sequel The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death: a largely forgettable, scare-free serving of B-movie rubbish.

My first surprise was the unexpectedly experimental structure. The play takes place about a century ago inside the very theatre we're sat in. We open to a timid man at centre stage, quietly droning his way through some purple prose. These are rehearsals for a performance, the quiet man being given dramatic pointers by a sonorously voiced Victorian luvvie.

Over the course of the evening, the Actor (Joseph Chance) and Arthur Kipps (Stuart Fox) construct the play around us - the framing device never too far from the central ghost story. And what a classic ghost story it is: crammed full of ominously empty houses, misty marshes, terrified villagers, eerily abandoned children's bedrooms and unresolved trauma. Despite the conceit that we're watching an early rehearsal, the relatively minimalist staging impresses - a wicker chest being used as a bed, a horse-drawn trap, a desk and as part of a train. 

My second surprise was that its unexpectedly funny. In fact, there's many more giggles than there are screams - courtesy of the perfectly pitched chemistry between the freshly cast Stuart Fox and Joseph Chance. Fox in particular gives a marvellously downtrodden, haunted performance, managing the tricky job of being simultaneously traumatised and very, very funny.

But yes, aside from being funny, it's also genuinely scary. Maybe not scary in an existential, keep-you-up-at-night, kinda way, rather in the fun thrills you get from a haunted house fairground attraction or a decently made horror film. Much of these come from the sudden loud noises that punctuate the show; a train arriving at a station; a woman's scream; or simply a man accidentally kicking over a clattering metal bucket. But the best come from the titular Woman, looming out of the blackness of the stage and sending genuine shivers up the spine.

She's duly greeted with shrieks and screams from the audience. On the night I went there was a large group of teenage girls sitting in the rows behind me, each of which seemed to be in a competition to emit the most ear-splitting screech, followed by giggling and then angry shushing from the stuffier attendees. For my part, hearing the gasps and squeals of people enjoying themselves made the experience that much more memorable and anyway, as good as The Woman in Black is, it's not exactly high-minded enough to warrant shushing.

The straightforward telling of an spooky supernatural story, presented without irony, is deeply refreshing. It's just nice to see a play where the ghost isn't a clumsy metaphor for some social issues and is allowed to get on with the simple task of just being spooky. That, coupled with the clever (but not showy) staging and the stellar double-act of Fox and Chance, makes for a satisfying slice of theatrical escapism. And that, as the bastard year of 2016 finally creaks to an end, is precisely what the doctor ordered.


The Woman in Black is taking bookings at the Fortune Theatre until September 2017. Tickets here.

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