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 The Theatreguide.London Review



The Woman in Black
Fortune Theatre February 1989 -

Back in the days when London theatre wasn't dominated by megamusicals, every season had, along with a quota of whodunits and sex farces, one or two plays like this, a modestly atmospheric ghost story. So it's nice to see that this one, not especially better than others of its kind, has caught on enough to run for over two decades.

Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's book starts awkwardly as an older man hires a young actor to coach him in basic performance skills. He, the elder, had a life-changing ghostly encounter, and hopes that being able to tell it to others will exorcise its hold on him. What is patently a device to justify having two actors onstage quickly recedes as the mode switches from narration to re-enactment, the two performers taking turns playing the tale-teller and various others he encounters.

As a young solicitor he was called to a country house to settle the affairs of a deceased spinster, only to encounter in the nearby village the kind of hesitation in visiting her home or even talking about it that recalls old Hammer films. There are no vampires or monsters about, though there are a spooky graveyard, deep fogs, dangerous marshes, eerie sounds, and eventually the spectral figure of a woman.

When he finally learns her story he also discovers that her appearances carry a curse that he subsequently is tragically unable to escape. That brings us back to the present, and the attempt to use the young actor to help him break the spell. But of course there's one more twist in the tale, designed to bring a final shudder to the audience.

It bored me, and that's not because I inherently resist ghost stories. (The Weir, for example, scared me in exactly the ways it wanted to.) It may be that I couldn't get past all the horror-movie clichés of the first half and thus was never drawn in.

I certainly had trouble accepting the patent artiface of the teach-me-how-to-act structure, which seemed perversely designed to keep us a step away from emotional involvement. But enough people do get the desired eeriness to prove that it can work.

There is one nice thing to note. Most long-running shows go through a couple of years of making at least a token effort to select good cast replacements, but eventually settle for any nobody who won't trip over the furniture (or even worse, any TV soap actor who'll pull in a few fans).

But the producers of The Woman in Black have been very good about keeping the acting quality high, especially in the more important older role, and you can be confident that the actors you see are of the same stature and quality as the opening night cast.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Woman in Black - Fortune