You expect to see all sorts of things these days in the theatre -“ but you don’t usually expect to get scared. We’re now so spoilt by cinematic effects that the relatively simple resources of theatre don’t usually have much pull on our fearful imaginations.
So it was fun to be caught out screaming in unison with the audience at this simple two hander of a ghost story.
Conceiving the play as a cheap stocking filler for a regional theatre in Britain, Stephen Mallatratt one Christmas 20 years ago adapted this scary novel by Susan Hill, and the show is still running in the West End. The original director, Robin Herford, has now recast it with two Australians for its national tour here.
The novel is set in an isolated mansion on the remote east coast of England, prey to an eerie fog and a dangerous rising tide. The charm of the play is that it’s set in the magic of an empty stage, and our imagination is conjured up with the barest of theatrical props.
Lawyer Arthur Kipps (John Waters) arrives to ask for the help of The Actor (Brett Tucker) to interpret -“ and exorcise -“ a ghostly story about a woman in black who still haunts him.
The Actor then plays Kipps’s younger self who was sent to the remote house to sort out the affairs of a dead client, with Kipps (Waters) showing an astonishing ability to play all the other eccentric characters.
The Woman gets to play herself, banging doors, floating behind the gauze or startling us suddenly spot-lit in the fog. Revealing her story is the purpose of this simple and unlikely plot.
The two actors (and ghost) have only lighting and sound changes and the odd stool and packing case with which to tell their story. They effectively creep around the stage, building the scare but also exposing how slow and wooden this predictable march of a ghostly tale can be.
It is set about a century ago in an time when mansions were darker and horses drew carriages. Handsome young Brett Tucker captures the eager beaver quality of the enquiring Actor and John Waters is an impressive encyclopedia of funny regional accents and characters.
My companion -“ a film reporter -“ adored it, and wondered why my praise was more reserved. Even if I had been screaming.
The Woman In Black is at the Theatre Royal until 16 July.