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The Woman in Black - Fortune Theatre

Every show,” the website for The Woman in Black West End play warns, will contain a school party. That was enough to put me off for years, until I thought I would see a performance right at the start of the Spring Term. There wouldn’t possibly be a school party in on day one of the state school term calendar. But there was. Thankfully, they were perfectly civilised pupils who sat in the correct seats (I once had an altercation at Richmond Theatre in Surrey with a schoolgirl who had the cheek to ask me if I wasn’t actually meant to be sat in the row behind, before a teacher kindly intervened) and didn’t rustle confectionery, or text during the performance.

What re-sparked an interest in it was a show I have been back to more times than I dare admit, in a relatively short space of time, Half A Sixpence. In that show, an all-singing, all-dancing musical extravaganza with at least two dozen actors (as opposed to the two-hander thriller that is The Woman in Black), the central character goes by the name of Arthur Kipps, as it is in the novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul by HG Wells, on which Half A Sixpence is quite loosely based. As I pointed out after the first London preview of Half A Sixpence (a preview that, almost entirely for technical reasons, was re-classed as a ‘rehearsal’ – and by ‘technical’ I specifically refer to set and lighting issues), there are now two major London shows with Arthur Kipps as the main roles. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before I found myself seeing the ‘other’ one.

As there is no demand for reviewers to attend shows in the bit between Christmas and New Year I took the opportunity to spend some of the free time at my disposal reading Susan Hill’s book, The Woman in Black, and watching the motion picture, starring Daniel Radcliffe. As one can imagine, it’s the book that contains the most detail, a point so eloquently explored in the stage adaptation, where there’s a line by The Actor (Joseph Chance) about how if Kipps (Stuart Fox) were to read out the whole thing, it would take about “five hours, at least”.

It’s not so much that the play is an abridged version, but that theatrical devices are used to bring the text to life. The background to the main story, as far as the stage play is concerned, is that Kipps wants to tell his story to family and friends. But, being a solicitor, and not a performer, he has hired the services of The Actor to assist him. It is barristers rather than solicitors who speak for the clients in court, so it is entirely possible that a solicitor’s public speaking skills are not up to scratch, even if they are perfectly capable of engaging in private conversation.

The set is remarkably minimalist – even Kipps at one point openly wonders how certain aspects of the narrative are going to be sufficiently depicted. It’s remarkable that the play has lasted so long, as parts of it do feel a tad dated. One or two scene changes involve the sort of clunky pushing and pulling around of props and set that I would normally expect to find in one of London’s pub theatres. While the apparently scary moments didn’t always frighten me personally – the sudden cacophony of noise jolted me more than anything in the storyline, especially the first time it happened. I was, nonetheless, engrossed by everything that was going on. Worth seeing.

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