Mark Lawson in The Guardian, Dec 2014

15 Dec 2014

Carry on screaming: the supernatural success of The Woman in Black. 

The ingenious ghost story – and GCSE set text – is now the second longest-running play in the history of the West End. So why does it continue to pack audiences in, after 25 years?

Mark Lawson, Friday 12 December 2014 

Although it’s fairly common for musicals to refuse to die, only three unsung plays in London and New York theatre history have lived to celebrate their 25th birthday. Still going after 62 years, The Mousetrap is old enough to be the father, or indeed grandfather, of both Perfect Crime, which opened off-Broadway in 1987, and The Woman in Black, the current production of which was first seen in London two years later and hence is celebrating its quarter-century in the West End this year, a landmark previously reached only by Agatha Christie’s snow-bound hotel mystery.

So, having seen The Woman in Black at the time it opened, I bought a ticket for the Tuesday matinee this week to see what shape it’s in. Outside the Fortune theatre, I saw the classic signs of a play that has become part of the skyline, a sight to be seen: coaches unloading groups of tourists; weary teachers telling lolling adolescents that they can’t have lost their ticket already because they have just been given it. (The Woman in Black is an exam set text, and the Fortune website features a warning that large numbers of school parties should be expected.)

The posters and programmes bring a flash of sadness because the play has now outlived by a decade its dramatist, Stephen Mallatratt (1947-2004), a graduate of Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough who adapted The Woman in Black from the 1983 ghost story novel by Susan Hill. Mallatratt was too young to have a memorial, but this play is at least a fitting one. It’s paradoxical to credit an adaptation with originality, but The Woman in Black stands among the most ingenious renditions from one dramatic medium to another, and is far superior to the 2010 Hammer movie version, which relied heavily on the bankability of Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor sent to conclude the affairs of a reclusive old woman who had lived alone in a mansion surrounded by treacherous marshes.

Something I’d forgotten until seeing the play again was that Mallatratt’s script anticipated the now fashionable genre of meta-theatre: shows such as The 39 Steps, Perfect Nonsense and Handbagged, which play with the conceit of a small number of actors rapidly switching characters and locations. The Woman in Black – as, more recently, did Perfect Nonsense – employs a structure in which someone hires a West End theatre in order to rehearse and then perform a key scene from their life. Counterintuitively – because the convention is that ghost stories keep the stage as dark and shadowy as possible – The Woman in Black frequently risks bringing up the lights and allowing the actors out of character and plot.

The only two dramatis personae listed in the programme are the elderly Kipps and the young Actor he has employed to guide him through this theatrical exorcism, although, as is often the case with small-cast thrillers, the stage sometimes cunningly seems more crowded than the declared resources suggest. And the great pleasure of the production remains the way in which Mallattratt and the director Robin Herford (who has been in charge of all the play’s incarnations) utilise the fears and imagination of the audience, so that, for example, a few glances and hand gestures create out of nothing a dog who is as convincing as animatronics, while a few puffs of stage smoke or a flap of fabric conjure up geographical and physical presences.

As well as its dire warning about the likely presence of GCSE examinees, the theatre’s website also strongly hints that this isn’t a show for those with psychiatric or cardiac complaints: the initial popularity of the show was built on reports of theatregoers leaving their seats and wits. At the matinee I saw, the scream count – especially in an adolescent teenage register – was satisfyingly high.

It’s striking that all three of the longest living non-musical plays involve investigations of death, although only The Mousetrap and Perfect Murder involve homicide. The plot of The Woman in Black turns on one accidental death and another two for which there would need to be a box on the coroners’ forms marked “supernatural causes”. Even so, the domination of lists of theatrical long-runners by mysteries and musicals suggests that there is a natural human desire to watch people either singing to, or killing, each other.

Some theatrical long-runners end up looking like Dorian Gray’s portrait, while the director and the first-choice actors show glossy new faces elsewhere. But, in its 26th year, The Woman in Black is slick and well-drilled, the current performers – Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden – using their voices and faces with impressive fluidity to direct and misdirect the audience. Supernatural occurrences would be required for The Woman in Black ever to overtake The Mousetrap, but, on this form, the ghost story should maintain its steady second place.

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