Theatre Review: The Woman in Black

Date Posted: 16/04/2012

With the film adaptation recently hitting our cinema screens, Rob Yandell went to see The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre to see why audiences are still lapping up the West End play after more than two decades.

The show summed up in one sentence... a captivating telling of a chilling story, delivered simply by a cast of true quality.

Who should see it? Fans of the book or the film will be interested, but also groups that appreciate good theatre without the need for musical routines and big effects. Oh, and people not afraid of a fright.

A small, intimate West End theatre and a simple stage set; but within minutes I was completely captivated by a thrilling and compelling story.

It was and still is the story that holds this play together. There are no flashy effects or big celebrity names drawing audiences. The simple recipe for success here is a chilling, yet absorbing tale performed by two highly talented actors.

Two stools, a bucket and a large basket were all that David Acton and Ben Deery started with. Changes to the set took place throughout the performance, but nothing that can be compared to some of the more recent additions to London’s ‘Theatreland’.

The Woman in Black originated as a horror fiction novel by Susan Hill in 1983, with a stage play first performed in the late 80s before opening at the Fortune Theatre in 1989. It is now the second longest running play in the West End, behind only The Mousetrap.

It has also toured the country, but will be more familiar with the masses following its film adaptation starring Daniel ‘Harry Potter’ Radcliffe this year.

Arthur Kipps, played by Acton, has a story “that must be told” to his close friends and family. And, after enlisting the help of an actor (Deery), the two start their rehearsals in order to share a true tale, based on the terrifying experiences faced by Arthur many years before.

This is when the dynamics of the play and its characters are in need of your attention. The switching of multiple characters can be a little confusing at first, but I soon became familiar with who was who and what was what. Essentially, it’s a tale telling a tale.

Although it can be classed as a chilling ghost story, I didn’t expect it to be so funny. The dramatic performance from the actor (well he is an actor after all) and the interaction between our two characters is charming despite the obvious discomfort felt by Arthur as he attempts to exorcise the ghosts of the past. It is a story and not a performance he reminds the actor, with little success.

The play unfolds further as we are immersed deeper into Arthur’s story, which takes us to the salt marshes near Nine Lives Causeway. Sent to this remote English town to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, our young solicitor finds that attending to her affairs isn’t as straightforward as he had hoped.

Catching a glimpse of a woman in black and learning of the unease of the locals when she is mentioned, Arthur finds more than he bargained for at Eeel Marsh House.

What impressed me were the vivid scenes I conjured in my mind, as the descriptive narrative painted an array of pictures.

I found Ben Deery’s energy on stage uplifting, as his well-educated character articulated clearly. Every word was true; his willingness to dramatise a story clear, although naive.  

In contrast, David Acton played timid Arthur with genuine sadness and anxiety. He displayed his versatility and flexibility by playing a number of characters that you could instantly believe in.

There is no doubt that the character of Arthur continued to find himself through his performances. Perhaps therapy would be more appropriate.

The audience was mixed, with younger theatregoers no doubt lured by the film. But having teenagers in the theatre added to the volume when the frights and screams played out.

Given the array of films, television and entertainment on offer, it is testament to the story and its performance that it can have such a chilling effect. As the play progressed many were moving ever closer to the edge of their seats.

I was gripped, as was everyone. Hanging on every word come the end probably isn’t overstating it.

It’s not flash, it’s not glitzy. It may be a simple story performed by just two actors. But there has to be something special in a play for it to flourish in the West End all these years. It was easy to see why.

If your group can hold its nerve and doesn’t mind the scares of a chilling tale, this is a well-crafted piece of theatre I would highly recommend. 

The Woman in Black is currently playing at the Fortune Theatre, London and booking until 15th December. Performance times are 8pm Tuesday to Saturday, with matinees at 3pm on Tuesday and Thursday. An additional matinee takes place at 4pm on Saturdays. Group rates are available for parties of ten or more people.

Get a flavour of the show by watching this short video (note - the lead characters are different than those currently in the play)...


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