As those of you who read my review of The Woman In Black film back in February may well remember, I, perhaps unfairly, spent a healthy paragraph or two of my word count referring to other adaptations of the same story. In particular- the play. 

See here:

Having been aware of both the original novel and of the Fortune Theatre show for some time, I found it difficult to totally immerse myself in the film without imagining the stage production as a reference point. An irritating insisted on piping up in my head after every jump- always asking the same question. I wonder how they do that in the play?

I’m thrilled to say that last week I was finally able to find out.

Being both a huge fan of being scared as well as an over analytical nerd, there was no way I was going to turn down an offer to watch one of the scariest plays of all time whilst attached to a heart rate monitor. Not a chance.

Watch one of the West End’s most successful plays, you say? Lay all your technical wonderings about the performance to rest whilst taking part in a detailed experiment into its exact emotional and psychological effects?

I’m there.

Heart rate monitor aside, the play itself is wonderful. It has been lovingly and cleverly adapted from Susan Hill’s original tale of a London solicitor tasked with organising the papers of a deceased countryside lady with a spooky home and an even spookier past. Every minute of the script is totally controlled and well-oiled, as well it might be after such a long and successful run. The play within a play concept, a structure not utilised in the film, gives a tidy framework to the action as well as space for a valuable suspension of disbelief. And in a theatre, where the lights are only ever dimmed rather than turned off, I think this idea is nothing short of genius. The rehearsal scenes this gives us, helped along by perfectly honed performances from David Acton (Arthur Kipps) and Ben Deery (The Actor) can add the comic relief which works so well in the horror genre, relaxing you only to build up the next scare.

It really is superbly well put together.

Not that you’ll have much time to sit and ponder all this during the play itself of course- your mind will be on other things. It is a scary play, yes. It will make you jump more than you’re ready for- no matter how brave you think you are. But it’s also scary in a way I didn’t expect. A way I think is really, really interesting and rarely achieved so well. 

You’re scared because you’re waiting to be scared

The only other time I’ve been scared in that way in a theatre was at a production of Richard III in Coventry, in which several of his High Evilness’ (I suspect that won’t catch on) masked and genuinely terrifying henchmen wandered through the audience at random, hitting the backs of chairs with a baseball bat. With The Woman In Black, the jump you’re waiting for is of course not a bulky weapon wielding soldier, but a ghostly, black shrouded woman. You know she will appear at some point, but you don’t know when or where.

I remember thinking, along with inward relief that I hadn’t ended up in an aisle seat, that this is something that just isn’t there in the film, and indeed in any film, as seeing a horror film at the cinema is a wholly different experience. True, some of the shocks are bigger and better through the magic of special effects, but I think that’s because they have to be. Even in today’s 3D cinema world, the ghosts and ghouls of the film stay exactly where they are- nicely contained behind the screen. Nothing’s going to tap you on the shoulder. No long skirt is going to brush over your foot- in short, nothing physical is going to happen to you. 

It’s this fear which works so well in the play- a statement with which I think my heart rate monitor would agree. Having watched my ratings slowly decrease as I relaxed into the play, all of a sudden it more than doubled, setting off what I can only assume to be a panic alarm to the fury of the row behind me. 

Watching a door shut all by itself in a film? At best, unnerving, unsettling maybe. But watching a door shut all by itself a few feet in front of you? Feeling the draft even before you’re deafened by the noise as it slams itself shut? Terrifying.
So stage versus screen? Stage for me- every time.

The Woman In Black is now out on DVD.

The play is on at the Fortune Theatre, Covent Garden.

- Jen

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