Ian Kingsbury went along to The Woman in Black, a 'a nigh on perfect ghost story' currently showing at the Theatre Royal...
“Darkness is a powerful ally of terror; something glimpsed in a corner is far more frightening than if it's fully observed”.
So said Susan Hill, author of the 1983 novel adapted by Stephen Mallatratt into the play we see tonight. For me, this gets to the chilled heart of why this is such a captivating and brilliantly suspenseful evening of theatre.
The physical limitations of a theatre, compared to, for example, the multi-million pound adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe where haunting locations and CGI do a lot of the heavy-lifting, are addressed head-on, by establishing that a man has approached an actor/director to help him stage a theatrical re-telling of his chilling experiences at Eel Marsh House.
And because the scene opens in an empty theatre, and we are in a theatre, all disbelief is suspended. We don’t have to be distracted by sets, or the shortcomings of stage props, because we are being told a ghost story, and the suspense, anticipation and creeping terror is transferred to somewhere far more compelling than a mere stage. The story takes hold in our own heads. And that’s where ghost stories weave their mess-the-bed magic.
Since this double-hander (triple - if you count the titular spectre) had its maiden outing in 1987, it’s been performed well over 13,000 times, second only to The Mousetrap in London’s West End. For me it’s the simplicity of the set-up and staging that explains its enduring success. Simple sets, a cast of two main characters, and judicious yet chillingly effective use of lighting, smoke, sound effects and the fevered imaginations of the audience combine to ratchet up the suspense, and deliver shrieks and gasps from the most cynical of horror-hardened modern punters.
A wicker basket becomes a solicitor’s desk, then a railway carriage, an altar, a pony and trap and finally a bed. It’s genius. A stage play is never going to compete with a novel’s ‘theatre of the mind’, or the budget of a movie, so why bother trying to compete. Make a virtue of the shortcomings. Make them central to the story. I bloody love it.
A nigh on perfect ghost story
Add in the pain of a mother forced to give up her baby, and the grisly but tragic death of said child in a remote and foggy landscape (another example of how the book and play tweak and nibble on our most primal of fears) and you have a nigh on perfect ghost story.
I really appreciated the pacing of the reveals. And when they came they were just the right balance of in-yer-face and fleeting. It’s an approach that makes for the best ghost stories on film. Think Andy Nyman’s 2018 Ghost Stories or Jonathon Miller’s 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come For You. Spare, claustrophobic, suggestive but never giving too much away. All about creeping dread, haunted minds and an unshakeable sense of something wicked this way coming.
There’s nothing I didn’t enjoy about this. Actually that’s not true. I could have done without the bouts of ‘auditorium cough’ and someone getting up midway through a half to go to the loo. But I would heartily recommend you get a ticket and join the seven million theatre-goers who have chuckled, squealed, jumped, shrieked and (I imagine) farted in fear at this perfect piece of theatre.
The Woman in Black plays at Theatre Royal from Wednesday 29 November – Saturday 2 December
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