Theatre Review: Hauntingly Good


The Woman in Black, written by Stephen Mallatratt (based on the book by Susan Hill); produced by the Fortune Theatre: seen July 17, 2014

I love me a good ghost story. And while yes, I’m also a fan of modern horror films (especially the wave that Scream started, the first Saw emphasized, and was encapsulated in The Cabin in the Woods, where it’s a thinking person’s game), there’s something to be said about stories set in the past, when we don’t have to worry about how the cell phone was going to short out and where a silently moving (and empty) rocking chair can’t be ‘easily’ explained away.

I had heard nothing but good things about the theatrical production of The Woman in Black, and was eager to check it out. And, before I go any further, the only thing it has in common with the movie of the same name is that they are both set during the Victorian era (or at least, has the Hollywood sense of it) and that they both involve ghosts and, well, a woman in black. Other than that, the two couldn’t be further apart.

Stephen Mallatratt adapted the piece based on Susan Hill’s horror novella, and does an excellent job of not only playing with the fourth wall, but in using all sorts of theatrical tropes in the playing of it. The play opens on a mostly-empty stage, and the audience finds out that Arthur Kipps (Stuart Fox, who does an excellent job of ‘acting bad’ at the beginning of the piece) has come to the theatre in order to meet an actor (Gwynfor Jones, given no name outside of ‘the actor’) in order to get advice on how to properly tell about an event that happened to him.

It’s the kind of production where I don’t want to tell you much about the plot, because I really don’t want to spoil it. There’s a brief plot description on The Woman in Black website: all I will say is that it is, indeed, about a woman in black.

Directed by Robin Herford, it reminded me a lot of a production of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that was done by my undergraduate school in style and concept. Like in many of a historical ghost story that are set on stage, most of the good bits are just using good old fashioned low-budget special effects to the best advantage.

Courtesy Fortune Theatre's website
Courtesy Fortune Theatre’s website

The tech is brilliant, using the fact that it’s a theatre show staged as a theatre show in the best way possible, with sound travelling through the theatre and entrances (and exits) from the house. It uses scrims and shadows and smoke effects, and keeps you constantly on edge. It doesn’t hurt that the program informs you that you are in one of the most haunted theatres in London, and the fact that as you walk in you see the ghost light on just adds to the atmosphere.

Both Fox and Jones are excellent, playing not only themselves, but various characters from within Kipps’s story, each distinctive enough to where you know exactly who is who. This is a show you not only enjoy, but embrace in all it’s wonder, leaving your suspension of disbelief easily at the door and fall willingly into what is happening.

“Will there be more surprises?” the actor asks at one point. “I cannot be altogether confident,” Kipps says in return. And that, my friends, is the key to The Woman in Black: there are plenty of surprises in this hellishly good ghost story. If you are in London at all, and love a good ghost story, you don’t want to miss this one.

The Woman in Black continues to play at the Fortune indefinitely. For more information, visit The Woman in Black’s website.