Review: ‘The Woman in Black’ at Fortune Theatre

By Jonathan Spira on 5 September 2017
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While some musicals seemingly live forever, it is rare for a play to run continuously for a quarter of a century or more. Indeed, only three in the history of New York and London theater have hit that mark, namely “The Mousetrap” (now a senior citizen at age 65), “Perfect Crime” (just hitting the 30-year mark this year), and “The Woman in Black,” now in its 28th year.

A reworked version of Susan Hill’s 1983 horror novella, the inventive staging of the play by Stephen Mallatratt has the setting as a play within a play, specifically set in an old Victorian theater. Arthur Kipps (Terence Wilton), a solicitor, has long been haunted by his experience 30 years earlier in settling the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow. To exorcise his demons, he plans to tell his story to family and friends and hires the Actor (James Byng) to improve his rather weak delivery.

The two perform the play, with the Actor portraying Kipps as a junior solicitor. Kipps plays all the other characters and serves as narrator. The stage seems at times more crowded than one would think with a cast of two, and the austere, darkened set allows the audience to focus solely on what is taking place on stage.

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As Kipps takes us back in time, he arrives in the market town of Crythin Gifford to sort through papers at Mrs. Drablow’s home, Eel Marsh House, set appropriate enough in the middle of a Marsh, cut off from the mainland at high tide. He relishes the visit enthusiastically and dismisses the villagers’ reluctance to visit the house or discuss any of the goings-on at Eel Marsh House over the years.

Accompanied by a villager’s dog, Spider, who was mimed so well it was easy to feel he was following commands, Kipps sorts through boxes and boxes of papers and bills and ultimately a cache of letters which he enthusiastically reads like a good novel night after night.

The letters tell the story of Mrs. Drablow as well as the mysterious Woman in Black and the more Kipps delves into them, the more sinister things become.

At the very end, once they have completed the rehearsal, Kipps asks the Actor about the actress he hired to portray the Woman in Black. The Actor denies that anyone else was present for the reading, implying that the real Woman in Black may very well have been present in the theater.

“The Woman in Black” is a surprisingly effective production that sneaks up on the theatergoer before delivering each fright and it was abundantly clear by the ovation at the end how much the audience enjoyed being frightened by the goings-on on stage.

THE DETAILS

The Woman in Black
Fortune Theatre
Russell St, London WC2B 5HH
Runtime: Two hours
www.thewomaninblack.com/

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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