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First performed in 1987 and transferring to London two years later, The Woman In Back has become a mainstay of the West End. Residing at the Fortune Theatre, fans of Susan Hill’s horror story have now been flocking to see Stephen Mallatratt’s two-hander adaptation on Drury Lane for decades.
The West End’s second longest running play after The Mousetrap, it has also become part of the UK school curriculum for drama, and was propelled further into the mainstream thanks to the 2012 film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe.
As it continues into the new decade, here’s everything audiences need to know about The Woman In Black.
The story follows Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer tasked with sorting through the papers of a recently deceased client, Mrs Alice Drablow, in a far-flung location in the north of England. At her funeral he encounters the woman in black, whose very mention spreads fear throughout the locals. Alone, he must go to the isolated Eel Marsh House to manage Mrs Drablow’s estate. Terrorised by every new sighting of the frightful woman, he discovers more about her tragic past and the dire consequences she causes.
In this ingenious stage adaptation, Arthur Kipps is first introduced as an older gentleman who has sought the help of an actor to tell the ghastly story that has been plaguing him since he was a young man. This framing device of a play within a play gives the audience a deft theatrical study in atmosphere, direction and suspense.
Terence Wilton portrays the now older Arthur Kipps with Chris Gilling as his understudy. In the play within a play, he takes on all the various characters he met when he encountered the woman in black as a younger man.
Max Hutchinson is The Actor who also becomes the young Arthur Kipps when the pair are rehearsing their performance.
The original West End woman in black in 1989 was played by Bristol Old Vic Theatre School-trained Nicola Sloane. The actresses who have played her since have always been conspicuously left off the billing and out of the final bow at the end, adding to the sense that the actors have truly been haunted by a spectre throughout the play.
A good fright is a given on any performance of The Woman In Black, but what sets it apart from many horror plays is the slow, suspenseful build-up. At first, The Actor is a cheerful foil to Mr Kipps’ apprehension but that slowly falls away as the two fall deeper into their play rehearsals and the hauntings become all too real.
Fans of the novel or the film get to see the story in a whole new way. Much like the novel, the audience see Arthur as an old man wanting to tell his story to his family to put the terrifying ordeal to rest, but the play brings a new framing device into the mix with the introduction of The Actor. The two putting on a play within a play breaks up the linear narrative with the stops and starts of rehearsals acting as a series of flashbacks between the past and the modern day. Seeing the difference between The Actor playing young Mr Kipps and his older self who has lived a lifetime of terrors builds on the anticipation leading towards the play’s terrifying climax.
Theatre connoisseurs also get their kicks from a production that literally breaks down all the elements that go into a play. Everything from sound, lighting and set design are discussed between Arthur Kipps and The Actor, with theatrical obstacles deftly navigated. Together they unfold as an intricate blend of theatrical mastery and an ominously atmospheric stage horror powerhouse.
“A real treat. Entertainment at its very best.” – Daily Telegraph
“A real thrill of horror” – Sunday Times
“One of British theatre’s biggest – and scariest – hits!” – The Guardian
The Woman In Black plays at London’s Fortune Theatre with a running time of approximately 2 hours, including an interval.
Tickets for The Woman In Black are on sale now through Ticketmaster.co.uk.