“A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers, but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only one's safety and well- being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course” (Susan Hill, The Woman In Black).
The quote from Hill’s excellent 1983 novella not only demonstrates sound advice in the face of cold uncertainty, but tips a despairing nod to a genre that seems to have almost entirely replaced substance with style and forgotten that most fundamental trick of horror storytelling: sometimes less is more and more is less.
To paraphrase the great Alfred Hitchcock, the fear is not in the bang, but in the anticipation of the bang. Only hours before tonight’s performance, I and a friend visited our local multiplex in high anticipation of the most recent remake/reimagining of a fright classic, only to be let down by all of the familiar failings and left to mull over its somewhat depressing flavour in the cinema foyer.
This, of course, is not true of all modern horror movie making (the British and Americans are the most guilty for losing touch with the craft), but nor does this particular trend lend itself exclusively to film. The scare, from the page to the stage, seems to have lost its bite.
The Woman In Black is very much an old fashioned kind of ghost story and with this being its 25th Anniversary Tour (it was first staged in 1987 and has since become the longest running non-musical play in the history of the West End, after The Mousetrap), its enduring popularity is unquestionable and almost unparalleled.
There are many reasons for this, but its key strength is that it possesses that rarest of golden qualities: it’s genuinely scary. Yes, it could be argued that its inclusion within the GCSE curriculum and Daniel Radcliffe’s entertaining, if still sinfully inferior, Hammer movie may have allowed the play to reach an audience that it previously may have not.
However, the fact remains that the best way to experience The Woman In Black is at the theatre.
The story follows junior solicitor Arthur Kipps who travels to the small market town of Crythin Gifford to sort out the papers of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow. Upon attending her funeral, he spies a young woman with a wasted face, dressed entirely in black. Confused by the locals’ reluctance to speak of her, he goes to her former home where he decides to stay until his work is complete.
But he is not alone and soon the horrors of Eel Marsh House will reveal their true colours and everything he loves will be cloaked in darkness.
The beauty of The Woman In Black is that it’s so simple. Whilst the show does add a ‘play within a play’ element that is not present in the book, it is never muddled and even provides an icier air about the experience as we soberly consider who or what is sitting next to us.
There is more humour than I remember it previously having, both in text and performance, but this merely leads the audience into a false sense of security. As we approach the close of the first Act, the smiles are all but gone from our previously rosy faces and eyes fall behind our quivering fingers.
The tension is, at times, unbearable and you may find yourself searching around for a distraction as, I’m ashamed to say, I did. But there is nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. Your only choice is to persevere and hope that you make it out alive.
The performances by the two actors are perfectly pitched, bringing life to these characters with love and commitment. Both are clearly enjoying what they are doing and that enthusiasm can be felt throughout the auditorium.
The woman in black herself makes such fleeting appearances that to comment on her acting ability would seem pretty pointless. I just hope that that dark, haunting figure was actually a part of the show.
The use of light and shadow makes the relatively simple staging crackle with tension. And as the silhouette of a steep staircase shudders into form during the second act, the weight of silence pushes the breath out of our bodies. The hearts begin to boom. And the rocking chair begins to rock.
Sometimes less is more and more is less. The Woman In Black demonstrates the perfect balance of what is required to be effective in this genre. To not only scare, but remain with you long after the final curtain. Instill a sense of dread and make you feel, as Susan Hill wrote, that “retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course”. This is what true great horror can do and needs to do a lot more.
If you are to see any show this year make it this one. An absolute classic of modern theatre.