The Woman in Black
I too shall be haunted by ‘The Woman in Black’ – but the production from 20 years ago. Comparisons are odious, of course, and distracting, because of constantly trying to recall the similarities and the differences: the original was scary throughout. I’d taken my teenage daughter who insisted for the first time in years on holding my hand.
Apparently, the long running London production has considerable appeal for young people. Unfortunately, instead of being silenced, filled with terror, many of them burst out laughing from nervous tension, as did most of the audience. The special effects, those intended to scare, were more reminiscent of a pantomime, and how everybody resisted the temptation to shout out ‘She’s behind you’ remains a mystery.
According to the programme, playwright Stephen Mallatrait ‘developed and enhanced’ the book’ but if that means the framing device, it has you wondering why they can’t cut to the chase so that Kipps gets on with telling his tale. Instead, he seeks the assistance of an actor in order to perform a kind of excorcism and finally put the past behind him by regaling family and friends with the story. This all seems to drag on until finally, we reach the causeway leading to the haunted house, where Kipps must stay overnight to peruse the recently deceased’s papers. Thus, he discovers what happened to the Woman in Black. And the two actors cannot be faulted, in a neat irony which has Matthew Spencer as the actor playing Kipps while David Acton, the actual Kipps, plays all the other roles – they are the main reason for the star rating.
Leaving things to the imagination is one of the things which theatre should do best. Here, it proved a bit too demading; even mime often provoked giggles. Nonetheless, a large wicker basket serves admirably as desk, carriage, bed etc, and the backlit scenes revealing the house’s interior and exterior are quite creepy, with the locked door without a keyhole the most sinister. Similarly, the use of lighting and some of the sound effects; the first of which, the sudden thundering of a train through a station, made everybody jump, though again, resulted in laughter,
Humour may be the necessary counter-balance to tragedy, but not when mis-placed. There are plenty of laughs at the beginning, justifiably, when the Actor becomes so frustrated by the Acted as it were. But the hysterics which greeted every attempt at the spectral did not portend well. That said, the play was very well received by said audience, although it struck me as rather disappointing, particularly after last year’s exceptional ‘Haunting of Hill House’. However, if you are seeking something more atmospheric, attendance when the play can be fully appreciated is recommended.