Review: The Woman in Black at Fortune Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

A haunted elderly man by the name of Arthur Kipps engages the services of a professional actor in the hopes of receiving tutelage in staging a private reading for his friends and family.

This is not just any performance though, as Kipps needs to exorcise himself of a particularly scarring event that happened to him in his youth. The problem is that Kipps simply does not possess the acting chops to take on the role of his younger self, and so quickly a second plan is hatched between Kipps and the Actor, whereby the Actor will play the role of Young Kipps and Kipps Senior will play all the peripheral characters in the story. It’s a play within a play kind of idea, and once the ball is finally rolling with it, the device is held together and conveyed in a spirited way, if you excuse the pun.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Plot-within-the-plot-wise – the story is a standard fare rather similar to the opening of Dracula. Jonathan Harker – apologies – Arthur Kipps (the younger version of him that is) is sent to a remote and desolate mansion to conduct a menial administrative task. Kipps the Elder chimes in from time to time playing various people Kipps the Younger meets during his stay in the village of Crythin Gifford – the roles mainly yokel exposition. For the most part then, Kipps the Younger is left to his own devices. And what devices they are. For he is not alone in Eel Marsh House. There is a malevolent presence in there with him, and she’s very, very angry…

The star of The Woman in Black is not the two actors in it, nor the Woman herself, but the stage design and soundscape. The set begins as a dusty out-of-action theatre, with wicker hampers and backcloths draped everywhere, but eventually expands to reveal various outdoor elements of the mansion, as well as various internal rooms, most hauntingly – a particular one containing a rocking chair with a life of its own. The sound is immaculately done – one shudders to think how long tech days take this production to get it timed right with each cast change – and all the jumps are in the right places and suitably terrifying.

Because that’s what The Woman In Black relies on – a hefty number of jump scares. Added to this are the gaggles of school groups that flock to every performance, students of Susan Hill’s novel one assumes, who actually serve the production greatly as scream machines. Despite never being one for rustling sweet packets or chatterboxes in a theatre audience, this is one occasion where all the noise around me actually enhanced the production. Although, the actors really should learn to wait until the pubescent giggling and shrieking has stopped before continuing on with their lines, as not a soul can hear them.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Joseph Chance plays the Actor, and he does it with aplomb, charm and panache. He has a beautifully deep and charismatic voice – perfectly cast as the classic young Olivier style of showman – and whilst his character’s mistake at the opening is one of hubris at his willingness to engage in what will be a harrowing experience for all concerned, he’s convivial and cheeky enough to stir empathy and willingness for the audience to follow him. As Kipps the Younger he’s able to realistically navigate the rusty and clunky plot – pantomime smoke and melodramatic script included – and convincingly convey the arc of a smirking sceptic turned wide-eyed, horror-stricken believer.

Stuart Fox as Kipps the Elder unfortunately suffers from volume issues. Had he been any quieter in his delivery only dogs would have heard him. And I was near the front. Of the stalls. Initially when Kipps is attempting to be an actor and failing, I assumed this was part of the schtick but unfortunately his issues continued for the rest of the production. Perhaps Fox is temporarily suffering from a winter cold. Unfortunately he also has issues with differentiating between the many characters he plays. Had it not been for the different jackets I would have struggled to tell them apart. I was most surprised to read in the programme that he had played the role before two years previously, because as it stands now Fox has substantially far to go before he fully inhabits the role as much as Chance does.

The Woman In Black has been running since 1987, and presumably will continue to do so long after this review has faded into obscurity. It’s akin to Madame Tussauds or the London Dungeon, it’s not so much a play anymore as a tourist attraction. The scares are legion, and the production is tight, but the plot is an old one, the dialogue is dusty as an Eel Marsh armoire and the direction could benefit from a new pair of eyes. But perhaps the producers are of the mind-set of “if it ain’t broke”, and it certainly isn’t. And so the Woman In Black awaits for those brave enough to step into her home…

The Woman in Black is at Fortune Theatre, London – or you can catch the show on tour.

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