I felt it proper that my first West End theatre experience, since moving to London, ought to be a spooky experience. Playing exclusively at the Fortune Theatre since 1989, The Woman in Black seemed like an apt choice.
Anyone who’s seen the 2012 film or read Susan Hill‘s 1983 book won’t have been spoiled – it’s nothing like either. The play is surprisingly minimal – stripped bare, with a only a wicker chest, two wooden chairs and two actors on stage. Everything else is suggested through crisp audio cues, or conjured up through the actors’ response to them (such as Spider the dog). Heed that before you go, in case you’d rather have more elaborate sets and multiple actors.
The story is set up as a play within a play. Our story’s protagonist, Arthur Kipps (Malcolm James) has written a play to recount his chilling experiences with the titular Woman in Black. In some of the (IRL) play’s most humorous moments, Arthur has embarrassing trouble playing the part of himself, and ends up deferring to an actor (Matt Connor) to take over. It’s a clever bit of levity before the spooks start coming in.
And they literally do. After we’d been advised not to take any aisle seats, I spent the odd minute doing some sporadic fake-outs towards the stalls doors, trying to unsettle my theatremate. I’m happy to say it worked at least once. Because the theatre is so small, your experience is already more immersive than if you’d taken your West End experience elsewhere; so nobody expected to have ghouls appearing in the aisle. It was rather sweet.
But, for me, not as scary as everyone had been losing their shit over. It’s expertly-acted and dizzyingly-paced, and sound production is second to none. It’s just not as frightening as the consensus had made out, and the Woman in Black herself is not so much terrifying as she is tragic.
Also: apologies. If you were there Friday, 21 October 2016, I am the asshole that coughed in the theatre. I tried to hold it in but, just like stifling a laugh that shouldn’t be laughed, it just made it worse. The throat-fracturing red wine is to blame.