The Woman In Black, Fortune Theatre: Play Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Prompted by the sad announcement of its 33-year West End run ending soon, I decided that, having been a long-term fan of the novel and film adaptations (excluding the frankly pointless 2014 sequel), it was time to consummate my love of The Woman In Black by watching it on stage. Despite being a self-professed lifelong horror connoisseur, I had yet to actually read a horror play, let alone attend a show. Having some money saved, I booked my ticket rather last-minute, and made my way down to London on Tuesday 29th November, eagerly awaiting a show I had foolishly put off of watching for several years.
As I was to discover during the course of the play, the fear experienced at the theatre is vastly different to that at home or at the cinema; reading a novel or watching a film, we’re able to put the book down or hit pause – at the theatre, there is no reprieve. We’re sat for the duration and there’s no screen through which we’re separated from the terror. At the theatre – and particularly at such a wonderfully intimate building as the Fortune Theatre – there exists no separation, for we share the same physical space, and we must confront the horrors head-on.
Having admittedly not read the play before attending the show, I had only a rough idea of its premise (namely that the novel’s protagonist, Arthur Kipps, has hired an actor to help him dramatise his harrowing story), so had only the novel to go by. Judging by the fact that the vast majority of the audience consisted of GCSE-age schoolchildren, I was possibly the only brave soul who was totally unaware of what was to come. The palpable tension surging through the audience before – and throughout – the show should have been a rather substantial clue to me.
Considering the fact that I attended the show alone and misguidedly booked a premium stalls aisle seat, I had unwittingly set myself up for the most hair-raising experience possible. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. Did I regret it in the moment in which I realised that an unwanted silent visitor was briskly descending upon the aisle, heading straight towards me? Absolutely.
As far as theatre adaptations of novels go, Stephen Mallatratt did an excellent job of adapting Susan Hill’s classic ghost tale, and this adaptation was truly brought to life by the two current principal cast members: Julian Forsyth as Arthur Kipps, and Matthew Spencer as The Actor. Horror can be an incredibly difficult genre to get right, and so it truly takes a great deal of acting strength and chemistry for a simple stage setup of two actors and a few props to properly capture the unnerving atmosphere of a supernatural horror and to elicit the fear as intended by the playwright – Julian and Matthew carried out the task to perfection. To me,
it’s testament to the acting on display that, during a scene in which a dog (Spider) finds herself in mortal danger, the devastating distress displayed by Matthew felt so real that I momentarily forgot that I was watching a play and that there was never a small dog onstage, only two actors and a whole lot of imagination.
Perhaps most impressive about the stage adaptation is that a relatively large rural setting with a fair number of characters is condensed into a (mostly) two-man play with a rather basic stage setup, all without doing so at the expense of the story, not losing any crucial plot details in the process. The success of each show rests squarely upon the shoulders of the two actors, as each man carries out the roles of several very different characters – no space is given for reliance upon other cast members to turn a potentially poor performance into a successful one.
With a quick costume and accent change between character swaps, it was as if the power of a strong ensemble had been concentrated into two men performing the roles of twenty. I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for any future plays featuring the two actors, as they truly did an exceptional job – the deafening applause they deservedly received at the end of the show suggests that I’m not alone in my sentiments.
Upon leaving the theatre (after having hung around at the stage door to ask for autographs from Julian and Matthew, both of whom graciously signed my programme), I started to reflect upon the 1989 and 2012 film adaptations; having now seen the play, do I still find the films as comparatively scary? Yes – that said, I find the 1989 version to be rather less unnerving. Despite only having a 12A certification, the 2012 version is, to me, one of the most terrifying films of all time.
I typically find the prominence of jumpscares to be a sign of compensation for poor tension-building, but they work to complement in The Woman In Black; the blackened hallways of Eel Marsh House and the sea mist-shrouded causeway between it and Crythin Gifford serve as settings ripe for such visceral scares to be thrown at the audience.
Though it finds itself being generally disliked (or viewed with relative indifference), I’m personally a big fan of the 2012 film adaptation, famously starring Daniel Radcliffe. “[He] looks like someone who would have horrible things happen to him”, Julian wittily mused to me, as we chatted at the stage door post-show about the various adaptations of The Woman In Black – after some thought, I have to agree with him. At the time at which the film was made, the naturally innocent-looking Daniel was roughly the same age as the young Arthur in the novel, and to me, that’s what made him look so right for the role of Arthur. Given his love of theatre, it would be nice to see him reprise his old role, this time for the stage.
After learning that there have been stage adaptations of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and Stephen King’s Carrie, I expect that my love of horror has now found a new blossoming friendship with theatre. By all accounts, I hope that The Woman In Black will become a play whose company I enjoy many times in the coming years, even if sadly not at its long-term home.
Was it worth the painful 5-hour coach ride down to London? Absolutely. The brilliance of The Woman In Black is something that cannot be replicated by reading the play from within the confines of a classroom, it is something that must be experienced first-hand – there exists no better environment for enduring the most heart palpitation-inducing play than at the Fortune Theatre. Be sure to make the journey to Eel Marsh House before it’s too late.
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