The Woman In Black at The Fortune Theatre
Based on the gothic horror novel by Dame Susan Hill, The Woman in Black has spawned two films as well as the stage play that has been running at London’s Fortune Theatre since 1989. It’s a two-hander, with simple staging that makes the creation of a growing sense of tension over the two hours even more impressive.
The Fortune Theatre has an unassuming façade with a small, intimate auditorium. The play’s set appears simple and rather drab. We see the bare stage of a shabby theatre with a rail of costumes, a chair and a large wicker storage basket. It’s a far cry from showing us the big haunted house that is the central location for the story. But, unlike its neighbour Frozen with its big budget staging, the magic and spine-tingling horror in this production largely comes from the audience’s imaginations, conjured up by the two actors, some startling lighting and sound effects, and a “couple of surprises”!
As the play starts, we meet an older gentleman, Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth), who wants to tell a strange and terrifying story from his youth. He has engaged an Actor (Matthew Spencer) to help him bring his story to life so that it can be performed for his family and close friends and bring him some closure. In the re-enactment that follows, The Actor takes on the role of young Kipps, with “Older Kipps” playing all of the other characters.
We quickly learn that Older Kipps is no actor – Julian Forsyth opened the play with a monotonous and mumbled delivery as he embarked on his tale. Just as my heart started to sink, Matthew Spencer’s Actor took to the stage and gave Kipps a crash course in acting skills that would enable him to play a part in the telling of his story. While this did provide some early laughs for an audience braced for horror, I felt it went on a little longer than was necessary and made for a rather slow start. When Forsyth eventually moved from his bumbling performance into properly inhabiting the characters he was playing, there was a tangible shift in energy.
The story that Kipps wants to share is, of course, his encounter with the titular woman in black. It follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps as he travels from London to a remote English town in order to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a reclusive widow, Alice Drablow. He travels to her home, the sinister Eel Marsh House, a property that is cut off from the mainland at High Tide, all adding to the general sense of foreboding. The bulk of the play deals with Kipps’ experiences in the house – with the secrets of Eel Marsh House slowly being revealed from behind a gauze curtain with excellent use of lighting revealing just enough to keep the audience guessing and very much on edge.
The two actors work very well together. It’s a huge task for just two people to tell this multi-character story but they absolutely succeed in giving us clearly defined characters and creating a suitably sinister atmosphere.
Spencer effortlessly jumps between the character of The Actor and his role as Kipps in the play within the play. As The Actor he has a charming swagger about him, and as the inexperienced young Kipps, his growing terror as events unfold builds up the tension to an almost unbearable level.
Forsyth plays a number of characters encountered by Kipps on his journey – it would be easy for these older gentlemen to all be indistinguishable from each other as costume changes are minimal, but Forsyth inhabits each with clear characteristics and physical traits that give each one a life of their own.
As the play begins, concern is expressed that the story can’t possibly be told on such a simple stage as how on earth will the actors be able to convey, for example, the various methods of transport used, the treacherous weather conditions, even a dog! And this is where the play absolutely excels. Through the skill of the staging and the performances of our two actors, we are transported through our imaginations to feel as if we are experiencing the bleak environment of Eel Marsh House first-hand.
In this performance, the fear of what *might* happen is just as great as anything that could be produced by complex special effects. Strange noises and sinister figures that may or may not be lurking in dark corners allow the imagination to run riot. There are plenty of moments that had the audience jumping out of their seats and I definitely felt a shiver down my spine at one point. It is a testament to the talents of the actors however, that my biggest fear was for the fate of an imaginary dog, such was their skill at building up the suspense and terror.
After running for over 30 years, and without relying on anything other than strong storytelling and the power of imagination, it is fantastic that The Woman in Black is still managing to terrify and entertain audiences of all ages. It’s a little gem tucked away behind the towering Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, and well worth a visit. But I almost guarantee you’ll be jumping at shadows on the way home and thinking about leaving a light on when you go to bed!
Review by Penny Walshe
The Woman in Black is currently on at The Fortune Theatre. You can find out more and book tickets here.