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When The Woman in Black on tour was announced, I was very excited. I booked tickets about 6 months in advance. I got seats right at the front. I blogged about it. I drove through SNOW and I left 2 DAMN HOURS early to make sure I got there on time. I spent £6 on a bottle of water and a pot of ice cream the size of a postage stamp at the theatre. But that is straying away from the point slightly…

The point is this, I was excited. For once, I listened to the buzz and I really believed it:

  • This stage play proudly boasts that it is the second longest running production in the West End (after the Mouse Trap, trivia fans)
  • Amongst a certain class of people, (read: the middle classes) this stage play is regarded as the absolute height of terror
  • Anyone who has ever gone to see it ever will inform you breathlessly that The Woman actually comes into the audience!!! *insert middle class equivalent of “Oh Em Gee!!” here*
  • Reviewers and theatre goers constantly rave about how “spine chilling”, “gripping” and “terrifying” it is
  • They also bang on about the general awesomeness and originality or the production and stage design
  • The thesaurus could actually be rewritten with all the synonyms for ‘terrifying’ which are gushingly employed in its sanctification

So here’s what I learnt from this experience. DO NOT LISTEN TO MIDDLE CLASS THEATRE GOERS WHEN THEY TRY AND CONVINCE YOU THAT SOMETHING IS TERRIFYING. Yes I applied ALLCAPS because I am in fact shouting. I am annoyed. Very. Very. Annoyed. The only reason I didn’t actually sit on the front row making notes about how annoyed I was feeling, was because I would probably have been kicked out. In retrospect, that might not have been such a bad thing. Except for the snow. And the long drive. And the £30 I spent on the ticket. Oh and the £6 bottle of water I hadn’t finished drinking.

The website proudly boasts that this stage play is: “The Most Terrifying Live Theatre Experience In The World.” They also appear to be attempting a world record for the number of times the word ‘terrifying’ can be misapplied in one place. Isn’t there a trades description act or something? Do I have grounds to get my money back?

Now before you get all whingy and declare me an uncouth horror-film geek, let me just point out that this was not, in actual fact, my first visit to the theatre. Nor did I sit on the front row wearing a Hogwarts scarf and crying because Daniel Radcliffe wasn’t in it.

The stage play starts with The Real Arthur Kipps (Julian Forsyth, in no way resembling the Real Slim Shady) approaching The Actor (Antony Eden, in no way resembling the British MP) to ask for help in retelling his story. The majority of the first act is taken up with ensuring that this premise is firmly established. There are also some misplaced and not particularly successful attempts at humour.

The production is minimalist. Extremely minimalist. A basket, which doubles as a bed, a train carriage and cart, and a rail covered in coats and hats for costume changes is pretty much the extent of the scenery. That would be fine, if the audience was every really allowed to suspend their disbelief for more than a few minutes at a time. We are rapidly thrown in and out of the ‘real Arthur/Actor’ scenario and the ‘re-enactment of Arthur’s life’ scenario, where The Actor is the young Arthur and The Real Arthur is everyone else. Yes. the cast is minimalist too. Further smashing the metatheatrical conventions by drawing in the lighting and sound engineer as another unseen character.

So the Woman in Black is a play within a play, a perfectly acceptable form of metatheatre, when done well (which isn’t very often, in my opinion). In this instance I found it to be a massive failure as it was convoluted, confusing and required the entire first act to explain the premise and ensure that the audience was on board.

Minimalist theatre is not generally my cup of tea but if done well, it works. This, to my mind, was not done well. There was no atmosphere, the occasions when sound and lighting were employed was very effective – but these were few and far between. I felt more use of lighting and sound effects would have helped to create the right ambience but it was instead used very sparingly – surprisingly enough.

Another cornerstone of a successful minimalist production would be strong characterisation and good acting. The acting is good but the characters, much like in the book, are hardly fascinating. Susan Hill’s stock-in-trade characters are wet and ineffectual men and Evil Women, with no substance. For some odd reason Antony Eden decides to play his part for laughs while Forsyth as Kipps is fittingly ineffectual. His transformation to a fully fledged Thespian is neither in keeping with the character nor particularly believable. It might have been interesting to linger on how the theatrical representation of Kipps by the Actor compares to the Real Kipps –  but only if the characters were in any sense interesting, but they aren’t so it isn’t.

The Woman herself is played, not by an actress but a stage manager. You would have thought that such a central role would require an excellent actress with gravitas and ability. Instead they decide to opt for a novice with lots of makeup. She struts around the stage like a hobgoblin, popping out from time to time, shouting boo and running away again. At her best (1989 TV adaptation) the woman is a force of nature, the embodiment of malevolence, unstoppable, relentless and as bleak and desolate landscape she haunts. When the woman comes for you there is nowhere to hide, no way to reach her or to stop her. She is not a woman, she is hatred, pain and rage given human form. In the stage play she is a cackling imbecile, more like an evil Mary Poppins than the pinnacle of ghostly horror.

As for the incredible moments when the woman appears in the audience, there was only one. And she didn’t ‘appear’, she trotted in from a side door and hobbled onto the stage clutching her skirts. This was, genuinely, the peak of horror for the evening. As she stood beside the two actors in the gloom, I felt the faintest stirring of excitement. It was short lived, as Antony Eden did a slack-jawed double take and she then swept off stage right. Never has an icon of horror been so utterly mishandled, neutered of all menace and cast aside. How people can rave about this dull and poorly executed mess is beyond me.

The second half is a little more lively, though many of the familiar ‘set piece terrors’ from the book are handled ineffectually. The scene in the fog is good but the sounds weren’t nearly disturbing enough, though the fog machine was a welcome addition. Later, the rear of the stage, previously shrouded with dust sheets and half obscured behind a gauze curtain is finally revealed as the nursery and a staircase. That a few bits of furniture and some clever lighting can create such a point of interest is oddly damning. I was left with a sour feeling: why did they waste those opportunities for the previous hour and a half?

The final act of the play mirrors the book, by recounting the laughable ‘pony crash’ with another appearance from the Woman, this time doing YMCA dance moves at the side of the stage (well, that’s what it looked like to me). As an addition it is revealed that the Woman The Actor has been seeing was not hired by Kipps (shock horror) and that his own rugrat is now in danger. Aside from not being in anyway surprising or moving, it also creates a massive plot hole: why couldn’t the Real Arthur Kipps see her?

In conclusion, I was massively disappointed. I admit that I am being particularly harsh because I had such high hopes for this stage play. That so many people rave about it only irritates me – but then the idea of ‘horror’ for the average  theatre goer is the threat of their local M&S Simply Food closing down, so I probably only have myself to blame.

I had thought that the brilliant 1989 TV production must have borrowed heavily from the stage play – I was wrong. The innovations there are all its own. The introduction of the phonograph, the development of Alice Drablow’s character, the change of the ridiculous book ending and the removal of the trite framing element were all original – and they all contribute greatly to the story and improve on aspects which Hill, quite frankly, fails to exploit. The stage play builds upon the weakest elements of the book to continue the Arthur Kipps story. And frankly, why bother?

Read this article from Sweat, Tears and Digital Ink for a more positive reaction.