The Woman in Black is a play which I’ve meant to see for a long time. Friends that have seen it never shy from recommending it (often with a shiver) and, apart from anything else, plays that don’t have something special do not survive for 23 years in the cut-throat world of The West End where a show is either selling or closing. The waiting and the hype left me with incredibly high expectations but I needn’t have worried – the performance that I saw could not be branded as anything less than outstanding.
Aside from The Woman herself, played by an uncredited actress who does not appear in the programme, the entire piece is performed by two male actors. Using a ‘play within a play’ format, it tells the story of Arthur Kipps (Ken Drury), a man whose life has been drastically changed by the mysterious and ghostly Woman in Black and has hired an actor (Adam Best) to play him so that his story can be told.
If there is anything negative to be said then it is that the show is a tad slow-starting, with the first ten minutes more likely to draw laughter than anything else. This is rapidly swept away, however, when the story of Kipps’ dealings with The Woman begins to flow without interruption. From this point onwards, I was captivated.
Although the stage is relatively bare, superb acting and the use of “new” (in the play) electronic sound effects allowed me to clearly visualise everything that was happening. The audience is given everything needed to picture the scene with only minimal effort and their screams certainly didn’t suggest that any struggle was required to suspend their disbelief. A piece of gauze was used to divide the stage into two and this was combined with intelligent and thoughtful lighting to create a wide range of sets which were simple and yet entirely effective. Drury and Best moved around these purposefully – their every action added to the performance with no sense of restraint or holding back in sight.
Finally, The Woman herself. Undoubtedly the highlight of the piece, The Woman in Black is petrifying. The complete terror which grips the play’s characters at the slightest mention of her name quickly gets under the skin of the audience and from there all she has to do is appear on stage to instil fear. Personally, I would rather she was on stage, rather know where she was – this was far preferable to the idea that she could be about to tap me on the shoulder. The Woman is a fantasically written antagonist, about as far from a sanitised Disney villain as it’s possible to get – constructed as a real and genuine threat, she is not at all harmless nor is she neutralised by the end of the play (not that the ending will be given away here)! It was only too easy to lose the sense of safety normally offered by the divide between stage and spectator and this is one of the things that makes the play such an experience.
The Woman in Black is a fantastic and affecting piece of theatre. Occasionally funny and almost always entertaining, it is a dark masterpiece which left me travelling out of my way to avoid a walk to the tube station alone in the dark. I would not hesitate to see this play again.
8/10 – An unforgettable spine-tingling production to see without delay.
The Woman in Black is currently playing at The Fortune Theatre, London. Its run is open-ended and tickets can be purchased here.