What is there left to be said, really, about The Woman in Black? Edging 25 years in the West End, translated into 12 languages and performed in 41 countries, a success everywhere from Mexico to Japan, Austria to Australia, Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1983 ghost story has proved itself a genuine phenomenon over the years, the very definition of “the little show that could.” To the extent that even James Watkins’s Daniel Radcliffe-starring 2012 film version hasn’t managed to supplant the stage version in most people’s minds as the “definitive” adaptation. (Not too surprising perhaps, given the film’s mediocrity.)
You would think that almost everyone who wanted to see this long-running show would have done so by now. But, judging by the large and enthusiastic turn-out at Richmond Theatre last night, that isn’t quite the case. A cynic might suggest that the show’s ability to still bring UK audiences in is really down to the text’s appearance on the GCSE/A Level syllabus and the coach-loads of students who arrive at performance after performance. Doubtless that’s a large part of it, but The Woman in Black’s success must also reside, simply, in the enduring appeal of an old-fashioned ghost story. And, it seems, in Mallatratt and director Robin Herford’s quirky, overtly theatrical approach to the source material.
Focusing on the narrator, Arthur Kipps’s, memory of being dispatched as a young lawyer to sort out the estate of one Alice Drablow, and his haunting by the title character, Hill’s story is fairly bog-standard, when it comes down to it, lacking the depths and psychosexual ambiguities of one of its principal inspirations, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
But what’s striking about Herford ’s production is the way it embraces theatricality and achieves its effects through the most minimal and humble of means. By having Arthur engage a young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and thereby “exorcise” it, the adaptors’ innovation is to make this a show about the process of stage adaptation. “There are so many things we can’t represent,” Arthur realises. But what the Actor shows Arthur, throughout, is that what can’t be directly “represented” can be suggested and evoked: through sound, smoke, props, and, of course, the willing participation of the audience’s imaginations.
The set-up is a little fussy and jokey, but the approach works, ultimately - albeit as decidedly minor, instantly forgettable entertainment And the current touring duo, Julian Forsyth as Arthur and Antony Eden as the Actor (graduates of the show in the West End), both put in solid performances, with Eden in particular a likeable and engaging presence as the increasingly unnerved young man.
Is the show as scary as it’s rumoured to be? Some audience members, clearly determined to be terrified and leaping (literally) at any opportunity, evidently think so. The less impressionable might not be so convinced, and Hill’s material simply doesn’t have the depths or the resonances to generate anything but the most superficial of chills. Rather, it’s as an exercise in innovative stage adaptation that The Woman in Black’s interest really lies.
UK tour dates here.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.