With this year's Get Into London Theatre cheap ticket offer not having great choice where the big shows are concerned, I've been using it to see some West End stalwarts. Last week's Inspector has called at a variety of venues since the early nineties, but tonight The Woman in Black has been haunting the tiny Fortune Theatre for no less than 21 years. Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's novel now has its 29th cast (Julian Forsyth as Kipps, Christopher Naylor as The Actor) with every one of them supervised by the original director, Robin Herford. Originally conceived as a low-budget Christmas show, Mallatratt's take on the story is an unashamedly theatrical one. Kipps wants to unburden himself of the terrifying story he's held on to for years, but is not a natural performer so hires The Actor to tell the tale, Kipps himself taking on all the minor roles. There's a lovely moment as the previously wooden Kipps suddenly "gets" what this acting lark is all about, allowing Forsyth free reign to give life to a series of often comic characters.
I've taken an interest in the idea of ghost stories on stage lately, what with there being so few of them I've wondered if it'd be something I might write myself some day, so that was another reason to want to see this most famous example of the genre. Where Darker Shores very effectively used illusionists' tricks to get some of its scares, The Woman in Black retains its explicitly theatrical theme throughout, using lighting, shadow, and most of all sound to get its scares, but most importantly of course the performances. While it seems pretty inevitable that actors will always be upstaged by a dog on stage, it's a compliment to Forsyth and Naylor's mime skills that they get upstaged by a dog that isn't actually there. It's all very old-fashioned but in a good way. Judging from tonight, The Woman in Black must have another thing in common with An Inspector Calls, namely owing much of its longevity to school parties. So as I sometimes do I'll leave the last word to their reaction, not mine. I can't say they were silent, but since the noises they made were laughter (of both the amused and nervous variety,) gasps, comments like "oh my god!" and "don't go in there!" and even the odd shriek, it's probably fair to say they were in the moment.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt, is booking until the 18th of December at the Fortune Theatre.