The Woman in Black is back. The West End‘s second longest-running play after The Mousetrap is on the road after 34 years at the Fortune Theatre. I have never felt so scared or physically terrified – in a theatre anyway – as I was last night. This play is an overwhelming physical experience. It doesn’t matter how rational you are or how dismissive of all things supernatural, ghostly and spooky this play cuts right through to the very centre of one’s central nervous system, resistance is futile. So just hold tight and let the experience take you. You will not be disappointed. In a world of film and TV high-tech manufactured content how wonderful to have a play that indubitably demonstrates that there is nothing that comes close to live collective experience. Getting together in large groups is what makes us human. We crave collective consciousness. The Woman in Black is unmatched in its psychological range and reach. Part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part metatheatre The Woman in Black is a roller coaster ride that is irresistible and unforgettable.
Based on the classic novel by Susan Hill (written in 1983) it has been adapted for the stage by playwright Stephen Mallatratt. There is a strong Scarborough connection. Susan was born in the town and our greatest living playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn has been based here for decades. This production was first put on here in 1987 with Sir Alan providing Stephen with help and support. So the pedigree is first class. This is the creme de la creme of English letters. (Susan is married to the world’s leading Shakespeare scholar Sir Stanley Wells). The director Robin Herford, associate director Anthony Eden and designer Michael Holt are all products of Ayckbourn’s stable as both actors and directors. Lighting designer is the odd one out being a ‘mere’ Head of Lighting at English National Opera. This confluence of talent has produced a work of art of total imaginative brilliance.
The play wears its genius lightly. It doesn’t boast or show off. It starts low key almost Beckettian in the banality of its repetitive rehearsals which continually fall flat. Slowly we shift gear and find ourselves like Pip on the marshes in the cold, wet and fog, not the marshes of Essex but those of the Yorkshire coast (Scarborough where else) where Pip is like the eponymous hero with no name – just known as The Actor (brilliantly embodied by Mark Hawkins) has been sent to settle the estate of the widow Mrs Drablow. Miss Havisham like Mrs Drablow lived in Eel Marsh House, accessible only at low tide. Now the play steps up a gear as we enter the gothic house of horror. Drawing on the Jungian Collective Unconscious, the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s (in particular the chiaroscuro of the Cabinet of Dr Caligari) the ghosts in the plays of Shakespeare (Hamlet’s father, the Witches in Macbeth) and ending in the Grand Guignol of Hitchcocks Psycho. All of which adds up to a totally compelling visceral shot in the arm.
What makes the evening so special is the way the audience, the venue, the cast, crew, and creatives come together to make a unique theatrical moment. The play deliberately breaks the fourth wall. Without the audience the play couldn’t work. Of course, we all know that we create the play by buying tickets and turning up on time and so on. But in this play, the complicity of the audience is made absolutely explicit. The reactions from the audience are what make the play work. The silences, the pauses, the hushed expectations, the screams all are vital. Being in the audience felt like being part of a collective seance. The way in which the sound, lighting and dry ice team orchestrated the interplay between the stage and the house was a thrilling piece of mass hysteria and group psychosis. People were literally shaking with fear. Here truly was Brecht’s total theatre and Aristotle’s catharsis. A most memorable night at the theatre. And wonderful to see so many young people in the audience. If The Woman in Black doesn’t make them into lifelong theatregoers nothing will.
Review by John O’Brien
The Woman in Black brilliantly delivers atmosphere, illusion and horror! Experience the thrill and excitement of this critically-acclaimed international theatre event that has been seen by over 7 million people worldwide, and continues to delight and terrify audiences of all generations.
Obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spectre of a Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul.
The Woman in Black is at Richmond Theatre from Monday 13th November, 2023 to Saturday 18th November, 2023.
View all shows booking now at Richmond Theatre.
Forthcoming dates of The Woman in Black Tour
TUESDAY 14 – SATURDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2023
TUESDAY 21 – SATURDAY 25 NOVEMBER 2023
MONDAY 27 NOVEMBER – SATURDAY 2 DECEMBER 2023
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
TUESDAY 5 – SATURDAY 30 DECEMBER 2023
TUESDAY 9 – SATURDAY 13 JANUARY 2024
Wyvern Theatre, Swindon
MONDAY 15 – SATURDAY 20 JANUARY 2024
Theatre Royal, Norwich
MONDAY 22 – SATURDAY 27 JANUARY 2024
Hall for Cornwall
TUESDAY 30 JANUARY – SATURDAY 3 FEBRUARY 2024
Grand Opera House, York
TUESDAY 6 – SATURDAY 10 FEBRUARY 2024
The Alexandra, Birmingham
TUESDAY 20 – SATURDAY 24 FEBRUARY 2024
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford
TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY – SATURDAY 2 MARCH 2024
Theatre Royal, Brighton
MONDAY 4 – SATURDAY 9 MARCH 2024
Regent Theatre, Ipswich
MONDAY 11 – SATURDAY 16 MARCH 2024
Theatre Royal, Bath
TUESDAY 26 – SATURDAY 30 MARCH 2024
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
TUESDAY 2 – SATURDAY 6 APRIL 2024
Milton Keynes Theatre
TUESDAY 9 – SATURDAY 13 APRIL 2024
The Orchard Theatre, Dartford
TUESDAY 16 – SATURDAY 20 APRIL 2024
TUESDAY 23 – SATURDAY 27 APRIL 2024
Crewe Lyceum Theatre
TUESDAY 30 APRIL – SATURDAY 4 MAY 2024
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
MONDAY 13 – SATURDAY 18 MAY 2024
Grand Opera House, Belfast
TUESDAY 21 – SATURDAY 25 MAY 2024
Millennium Forum, Derry
TUESDAY 28 MAY – SATURDAY 1 JUNE 2024
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin