Sunday, 29 January 2017

The Woman In Black

Last Monday night Sarah and I went to Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre to watch the stage production of The Woman In Black. I've wanted to see this show for years, well before the rather underwhelming Daniel Radcliffe movie brought the story into the public consciousness, so it was good to get a chance to visit Eel Marsh House, if only for one, haunted night.
This theatrical version of Susan Hill's novel is apparently the second longest-running non-musical in West End history, after The Mousetrap, and I was interested to see how they approached the adaptation. With just a two-man cast ( and possibly a random stage-hand as The Woman? ) how could they present the creaking old house, the fog-bound marshes and the crashing horse and carriage of this grim, Gothic story? Pretty well, actually...

( Spoilers ahead )
The story of course involves a young solicitor called Arthur Kipps who is sent to sort out the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, a reclusive old woman who lived in the neglected Eel Marsh House in a particularly desolate part of North-East England. Kipps finds that no-one from the neighbouring village of Crythin Gifford will talk about the old lady or go anywhere near the house. When he starts to work on the mountains of papers and correspondence that Drablow left behind, Kipps starts to experience strange noises in the house and out in the marshes, before eventually the Woman In Black herself appears  -  a vengeful spectre who haunts the gloomy landscapes and the tumbledown house. Soon the solitude and the disquieting events start to affect the mind of the homesick solicitor and it seems like the haunting may even follow him when he finally escapes from Eel Marsh House...

This adaptation takes the form of actors rehearsing, and then living out, a play.The elderly Arthur Kipps, still haunted by the events at Eel Marsh house decades before, enlists an unnamed Actor to help him tell his story, in the hopes that this will exorcise the memories and ghosts. The Actor in turn urges Kipps to take part in the play  -  he will play Kipps and Kipps himself will play all the other characters  -  something Kipps is at first reluctant to do and frequently stumbles over his lines before gaining confidence in the telling.
We found this initial setting up of the story at times almost painfully slow as there is much backwards and forwards between the Actor and Kipps over his inability to act. After a while we were whispering to ourselves "Yes, we get it  -  get on with the story"... and I don't think we were alone: the woman sitting next to me actually fell asleep...
When the story finally got going it became more enjoyable as the cast made ingenious use of the intentionally limited stage set and props. The Actor urged the audience to use their imaginations to conjure up the scenes and, aided by some brilliantly designed lighting and sound effects, we were transported to that fog-enshrouded old house at the end of a submerged causeway. At times the stage was plunged into almost total darkness with only lamplight to illuminate the scene... and maybe a ghostly, white face hanging suspended behind the actors...
( I'm cheating slightly here as this image is from the movie, or possibly its sequel, but who saw that anyway? )
The moments when the ghost appeared were certainly effective although mostly heavily signposted, the best and creepiest being the times when she would slowly appear in the background as little more than a moving shadow, unobserved by the main characters. We were seated up in the Circle so at quite a remove from the action and probably didn't benefit from the full impact of the SHOCK! moments. The ground-level seats were mostly taken up by school kids and students ( studying the play at college, I guess ) who screamed their heads off whenever the ghost appeared. We heard the actors talking in the bar afterwards and they loved the fact that the play had such an impact on the kids.
And, yes, the actors did a wonderful job in conveying such a story while working with such minimal aids, particularly David Acton who played Kipps and all the secondary characters. He really convinced as a man haunted by his past who finds the confidence to tell his story on stage. The Actor himself, Matthew Spencer, had a far more showy, necessarily "luvvie" kind of role and also excelled as an actor who found himself literally recreating the hauntings. Both were very impressive and helped rescue the early, stodgy scenes. So, all in all, not quite the scare-fest we'd expected but good fun and well worth seeing. It was also great to be in the lovely Everyman Theatre, a beautiful building which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year:










2 comments:

Kid said...

I saw the Daniel Radcliffe movie on TV a while back, and actually thought it was quite good. However, I had no expectations, whereas had I seen it in the cinema, I might have thought differently. ('Cos we always expect more from a movie when we get dressed up to go out and see it, don't we?)

cerebus660 said...

I thought the movie was pretty good, but only pretty good and no more. There were a lot of obvious jump-scares in there for no real reason and some unnecessary additions to the original story - the whole train station sequence for example. I still think the 1980s TV version of the story is the one to beat...

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