Review: Woman in Black

I’ve been told I’m not allowed to make any Chris De Burgh Lady in Red jokes in this review. I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s going to work out but I’ll do my best!

The Woman In Black is fast becoming the ghost story of our age. Written in the eighties, it manages to hark back to the classic age of Victorian ghost story telling in both tone and setting. It is best known of late for the film version, which although excellent overall did at times come across as Harry Potter and the Miscast Lead. Filmed also for TV in the eighties, and scripted by my all time writing hero Nigel Kneale, I’ve been a fan for some time, so the chance to see it on stage at the Grand was one I couldn’t miss out on.

The stage adaptation is essentially a two hander (with the odd appearance of the titular, drably dressed dame) and is set in an empty theatre. One man has an horrific story to tell, to exorcise it by its telling, the other is an actor who is hired to teach him the tools of telling it to an audience. The two leads, as both power across the stage in equal strength, switch from character to character, including each other’s, in a head twisting meta fashion.

As the story progresses from a reading of a manuscript in an empty theatre to the northern town with its doom laden spectre, this blur of the protagonists jumping into each other’s shoes is so seamless you are quite carried away by the exuberance of it all. It is left to a single actor to build the tension and terror and just as you think ‘there’s nobody here, it’s just you and me’, the dark shadow of the ghost will coalesce in a corner of the stage and you suddenly realise you have forgotten to breathe for the past minute. It’s wonderful stuff.

Once again, the Grand’s stage and arch is broken and rough material covers a stage extension to effectively create a graveyard and the isolated stretch of causeway that key sections of the play revolve around.

For those who do not know the plot I’m not going to fill the review with spoilers as I wouldn’t want to rob you of the pleasure (if that is the word) of seeing the play, watching the film or reading the book and slowly revealing the layers of terror and tragedy that beset the characters, town and indeed the woman in black herself. I do urge you to explore the story though as it is a chilling and worthwhile experience.

Chilling is the best word to describe the play.The Grand has spoiled us of late with some incredible theatre and ghost stories, particularly The Signalman and Whistle and I’ll Come for You My Lad a couple of months back, but where that show was an affectionate and very warm affair this is quite the opposite. Dark and claustrophobic, the tensions that build as the terrible roller coaster of tragedy overtakes all involved are nerve shredding. The small cast and company ably steer the play from its mumbled lack of confidence start to its thunderingly haunting ending. A lack of confidence I should add that is all part of the play, every aspect of the show ached with firm and masterly direction and performance.

This is theatre as it should be; strong and solid, great story, first rate performers and world class direction and staging. The stupidly loud and giggling trio of schoolgirls whom the teacher couldn’t control did sadly spoil the atmosphere for a few of us, but that couldn’t be helped.Well, maybe telling them to leave would have helped, but it’s a small niggle. I do think it shows a lack of respect for the rest of the audience and the performers when this kind of thing happens though.

That said, even with the noise from them intruding, the evening was a brilliant one and if you get the chance to see this haunting production of this fast becoming a modern classic ghost story do so, but make sure you steel your nerves first.

I seem to say this a lot but the Grand is yet again giving us world class theatre. I’m saying it a lot with good reason. It shows the strength and calibre of programming that the Grand is offering us and, fingers crossed, shall continue to offer.

There, I managed to get through the whole review without one single Lady in Red reference. I’m proud of myself. Oh, apart from the one that took an hour to work in that is…Did you spot it?

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