THEATRE REVIEW: The Woman In Black, Fortune Theatre

currently booking until January 2016

woman in Black 2Matched perhaps only by Ghost StoriesThe Woman In Black can make a solid claim as the scariest show in the West End; it is also one of the longest-running, with an impressive record of 25 years at the Fortune Theatre. It’s become a popular destination for school trips, but this was the first time I’d managed to see the show after studying extracts of the book long ago in Year 9 English lessons.

Adapted from Susan Hill’s novel by Stephen Mallatratt, the show’s framing narrative presents an elderly Mr Kipps, desperate to relate his tale but sadly lacking in thespian skills. Enter The Actor, who takes on the role of the younger Mr Kipps while the real Mr Kipps (keeping up here?) plays all other roles. The cast of two evoke comedy in the early scenes from Kipps’ inability to improve his acting, and The Actor’s amused frustration at his blundering.

Of course, all the laughs relax you into a sense of security, which is soon blown apart by the creepy tale that begins to unwind. While the first ghostly appearances of the title character are intriguing rather than frightening, the confidence you feel begins to ebb as things become altogether more sinister and the shivers start to creep up the back of your neck…

In many ways, the eeriness of the show is rooted in simplicity: it plays on the predictable fears of the dark, the dead of the night, closed doors in abandoned buildings and unexplained noises – the elements of every half-decent ghost story. But in presenting these with skill, and without histrionics, The Woman in Black builds the fear, layer on layer. There is something rather wonderful about an entire audience holding their breath as one. The set is relatively simple with minimal special effects, and the intimacy of the venue makes flashiness unnecessary and, indeed, unwanted. It is back-to-basics theatre at its very best.

As the older Mr Kipps, Julian Forsyth is moving in his desperation to tell his story and exorcise the demons of his terrible experiences. Antony Eden makes for an eager Actor, avoiding hamminess and timing every movement expertly to make us jump and gasp. The Woman In Black is not – thankfully – full of gruesome horrors to give you nightmares, but it is a masterclass in suspense. The smallest touches are used for the greatest impact and stay with you after the comforting house lights have been relit: the rocking chair, the open door, the drawn, white face of the Woman that lingers at the curtain call, as if a reminder of the ghost’s eternal presence.

The Woman In Black is no doubt a classic that fully deserves its nigh-on permanent home in the West End. Sinister, gripping and chilling – a real thrill.

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