Theatre preview: The Woman in Black, King’s Theatre

A scene from Susan Hill's The Woman In Black. Picture: Contributed
A scene from Susan Hill's The Woman In Black. Picture: Contributed
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HARRY Potter star Daniel Radcliffe may well have sent a chill or two down your spine as Arthur Kipps in the recent movie version of The Woman In Black but, take my word for it, nothing prepares you for Susan Hill’s original stage play which is guaranteed to make audiences jump screaming from their seats in terror.

To be honest, I’d forgotten how good the play was - the last production I saw starred an ageing Frank Finlay, who was almost inaudible throughout and I’d avoided the play ever since.

Recently, however, I caught an understudy run on London’s West End. Former classic Doctor Who and Emmerdale star Richard Franklin portrayed the old Mr Kipps in a production which saw him give a master-class in characterisation as he hopped from one character to the next with effortless abandon.

As he did, the scary tale unfolded and I came away with a new respect for what is a truly entertaining work.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, which returns to the King’s Theatre this week, the story revolves around the desolate Eel Marsh House. Proud and solitary, it surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway.

When Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, he is unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows.

It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman dressed all in black at the funeral that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold. This feeling is deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black – and her terrible purpose. Years later as an old man he recounts his experiences to an actor in a desperate attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past.

The play unfolds around the conversations of these two characters as they act out the solicitor’s experiences on Eel Marsh all those years ago. Unlike the movie, the theatre production is a two-hander, one older and one younger actor bringing to life all the characters required to tell the chilling tale.

Produced by PW Productions, the play’s 25th anniversary tour stops off at The King’s until Saturday, where Julian Forsyth plays Kipps with Antony Eden as ‘The Actor’.

The PW of the production company is Peter Wilson, the man who first recognised the show’s huge potential and put it on a stage. That was in 1989, when the play premiered at Norwich’s Theatre Royal.

“My blood is in that production. I put my house on it because I really believed in it, I love it, and I still do,’ says Wilson.

He’s not kidding. The Woman In Black wasn’t an overnight success, an early crit from Ken Russell reckoning it’d be lucky to run a week.

Today, the play has been seen by more than seven million people worldwide and has spent a quarter of a decade frightening theatre-goers.

“His [Russell’s] position was that it was not exciting enough and would not run because not enough happened in Act One,” says Wilson, of Russell’s review.

“For me, Act One is the slow burn, but it has one of the greatest Act Twos I have ever known. It is just breathtaking.

“There are two things which I believe make this production stand out. It makes a direct appeal to the audience and asks them to use their imagination and it appeals to younger people.

“The screams are genuine, and I think it gets a younger audience in a way that they simply did not expect. It gets the person you go with leaping into your lap.”

Based on her novel of the same name and with all the Gothic suspense of a classic ghost story, writer Hill’s influences are never clearer than in The Woman In Black.

“I was born in Scarborough, in a snow-bound February during the Second World War,” she recalls.

“There were a good many old ladies living there in those days but there never seemed to be any children near to us, so that I spent a lot of my time on my own - but quite contentedly so.

“I had imaginary friends and I made up stories about them. As soon as I could, I wrote them down. So there was never a time in my life when I was not a writer. And so it has gone on.

“At school I wrote two novels, which were published when I was at university. They were very bad novels, my apprentice work, and they are out of print - but they were the best I could do at the time.

“It took me some years to find my real voice and meanwhile, I lived from hand to mouth as a freelance book reviewer, and always, I read, not just the new books, but the things I had grown up with - Dickens, Hardy, the Brontës, everything with atmosphere and a sense of place.”

It’s that same atmosphere and sense of place that makes The Woman In Black something special in the world of theatre, so, if you only know the story from the movie, you could just be in for a treat, and the fright of your life, if you head down to The King’s.

• The Woman In Black, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, until Saturday, 7.30pm (Wednesday and Saturday matinees, 2.30pm), £14-£29.50, 0131-529 6000