Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of the Susan Hill novel has quietly (despite the screams it provokes) managed to occupy the West End for 27 years. Last week it welcomed its latest new cast to the stage for their nine-month stint.
Mr Kipps, a retired solicitor, has a dark story he needs to tell. To that end, he has employed an actor to help him with his projection & confidence – however, seeing that Kipps’ manuscript would take around five hours to read out, the actor suggests turning it into more of a performance. This way, sound effects & actions can be substituted for lines, making it less monotonous for his audience. Kipps is initially sceptical, but soon gets into it with more practice, so the production becomes more elaborate – and more realistic. His story surrounds his discovery of the curse of the ‘Woman in Black’ when he visits a remote village to attend to a client’s funeral in his youth.
The real beauty of the production is that most of it is a play within a play. It is a fine lesson in metatheatricality, making it both a dramatic spectacle and a great educational tool. For starters, it is set about one hundred year ago in whichever theatre it plays in (the Fortune Theatre is its current West End home); the audience can then feel a part of it, and it blurs the line between fiction & reality a bit further.
In keeping with its historical setting, the show uses more traditional, low-tech methods to scare its audience – rather than relying on computer-generated projections & elaborate staging, it employs a clever combination of lighting (designed by Kevin Sleep), sound (designed by Gareth Owen) & the build-up of tension within the text itself. It is more about sudden jumps than all-out horror, and even if you’ve worked out what’s going to happen next you can’t escape the instinctive effect when it does actually happen!
The show has obviously been running successfully for many years now, however I would question the inclusion of an interval. Given that it steadily builds up tension to heighten the scares, it seems a bit of a waste to break off where it does. The running time is approximately two hours with the interval, so it’s a perfectly feasible length to run straight through. That way the tension keeps building without interruption – and it doesn’t give audience members the opportunity to go & buy noisy snacks halfway through…
It is a staple of many GCSE Drama programmes, so a fair amount of school groups are often in watching. I would like to insert a plea to teachers: please, please, please ensure your students know how to behave in a theatre before bringing them along. For a production like this it is especially vital that disruptions are kept to a minimum so that the effect of the play is not lost. Screams are to be expected from those of a very nervous disposition, but following that with giggles & chatter is disruptive & unacceptable – the actors carry straight on with the play, after all.
Joseph Chance brings an authoritative air to the role of the actor, doing his best to coax Mr Kipps into his way of thinking as he gets more & more intrigued by the story they’re telling. Stuart Fox returns as Mr Kipps after a two-year absence, with a wonderful performance that ranges from reluctant orator to increasingly confident amateur actor. His early attempts at reading his story are particularly funny, with Kipps clearly not understanding the increasingly frustrated actor’s advice.
My verdict? Traditional chills that work just as effectively in our age of special effects, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats until the very end – the West End wouldn’t be the same without its scary resident!
The Woman In Black runs at the Fortune Theatre and is currently booking until 23 September 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.