The Woman in Black is one of the West End’s true war-horses and has been a Theatreland staple now for over fifteen years. But even though it’s been playing at the Fortune Theatre since 1989, it continues to pack them in. It’s massive success may suggest something suitably black occurring behind the scenes – diabolical pacts, contracts inked in blood – but the reality is far more straightforward.
When Susan Hill wrote the novel on which the stage show is based, she firmly believed that the classic English ghost story had gone into decline. Gathering together common touchstones of the genre such as an old deserted house, spooky graveyards, unforgiving weather and, of course, the ghostly woman in black herself, she set about writing her own tale. Given the familiarity of all these elements the story could have easily lapsed into clich. But while you could never accuse it of exuding originality, Hill’s novel succeeded because of her complete understanding that horror is as much psychology as it is about scary monsters.
Adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallachatt and directed by Robin Herford this production uses just two actors to play all the parts in Hills novel. And all the sets, the pony trap, the grand country house, are recreated using little more than a trunk and a couple of chairs. This minimal approach works surprisingly well; allowing the production to concentrate on the plot and atmosphere of the novel rather than on scary aesthetics. It is this simplicity, more than anything else, that accounts for its staggering success – there is little in it to date or grow tired.
The production also never underestimates the power of the audiences’ imagination. Clearly a woman dressed in black stepping out from behind curtain in a fully-lit theatre would only frighten the most timid of souls. But if youve dimmed the lights, released a little smoke and used all manner of unexpected sounds to shred the audience’s nerves, that woman becomes something far more terrifying. The power of suggestion is key in this play and, because the fear is of a psychological nature rather than being dependant on big effects, the power of the play to frighten never fades.
The most memorable scene in this production is that where Kipps decides to stay on at Eel Marsh House to go through some papers. Having established the fact that the house is linked to the mainland via a narrow causeway that, for most of the day, is covered by water, the play is able to create an intense feeling of physical and mental isolation. Strange sounds that appear to come from both inside and outside the house only add to the tension. This works so brilliantly because, as in the British horror classic The Haunting, you hear everything but see nothing.
The production is successful in what it does because Mallachatt and Herford understand that fear and isolation are key to the novel and have the stagecraft to convert that understanding into a play that is not simply scary but visually distinctive. The cast (which changes every six months; another reason perhaps why things still feel fresh) has a lot to do with this, and current performers Daniel Coonan and Paul Chapman both give excellent performances.
With musicals still accounting for most West End long-runners, it’s easy to overlook the success of the Woman in Black, to forget how impressive it is that an old fashioned ghost story such as this still regularly shocks and scares audiences. But as long as there are people who are alarmed by the dark and who fear the sound of unfamiliar footsteps in the night, this play will have a place in London. Besides, fifteen years is nothing in Theatreland terms – look at The Mousetrap!