Based on the novel by Susan Hill, in recent years made into a motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black began as a small-budget seasonal affair in Scarborough and has since became a major stalwart of London's West End, where it is still running after 25 years, thanks to its clever use of economical theatrical storytelling techniques.
Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation intelligently condenses the novel's plot and multitudinous characters into a two-hander play which utilises the medium of theatre itself and the imagination of its cast and their audience to succinctly portray the eerie events surrounding Eel Marsh House and the tragic events of its past.
Robin Herford's direction is clean, concise, sharply effective and he is adroit at building up tension whilst interspersing it with occasions of humour. Contrast is a prime element of this production and Herford's use of animated movement is balanced by moments of stillness. Herford is aided by the simple, atmospheric design of Michael Holt and the precise lighting by Kevin Sleep (and associate lighting designer Tony Simpson) which elegantly uses colour upon the textured surfaces of Holt's design to aid the storytelling. Add to this the sound effects designed by Gareth Owen (original sound design by Rod Mead) and assistant sound designer Richard Carter and all the elements for a thrilling instance of drama are present.
The final, key, ingredient is the cast and Malcolm James and Matt Connor are well suited as the story-tellers who have the audience gripped and engaged from the outset. As the play moves along they become further entrenched in the events portrayed drawing the audience deeper into a story that becomes progressively darker. Running the gauntlet of emotional variety is a skill in itself and both actors are expertly equipped to do so in a play which demands no less of a performer.
Epitomising the essence of theatre and its art in the telling of a tale that speaks to the primal fear within us all, The Woman in Black is a surprisingly strong piece of entertainment and, since fear is a powerful emotion that both repels and attracts many a human, it is further proof that we will always be drawn to forms of entertainment that play to the lure of being scared.
Given that an audience must buy into what is happening before them at all times - that they must 'suspend disbelief' - it is a credit to all involved, on and off-stage, that such a deceptively simple production can be so effective in eliciting such pronounced responses from an audience and, thanks to the immediacy of live theatre, it's no wonder that the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black has become such a success since its premiere all those years ago. Years now lost to the mysterious mists surrounding Eel Marsh House...