What is to be haunted? Spectres appearing unexpectedly, things that go bump in the night? Or perhaps the fear of it is enough. With light and dark, sound and silence and two fine performances The Woman In Black manages to convey the utter terror of being driven to the edge of one’s wits by little more than dread.
This two-hander sees the elderly, buttoned-up Arthur Kipps, intent on performing a manuscript that details his terrifying experience as a young legal clerk, and The Actor, helping him bring his story to fruition. They develop a play within the play as they build the story Kipps hopes will exorcise the memories that have haunted his adult life.
The Actor plays the role of Kipps in reenacting the youthful clerk’s journey to a remote northern outpost to attend the funeral of a client, back in the mists of time. Visiting the house of the deceased, an old building in the middle of a marsh, he uncovers the secret of the titular spectre who haunts him.
The Woman In Black is the second longest-running non-musical play in the history of the West End, after The Mousetrap, and made a successful transition to the big screen in 2012. Here the production makes the Playhouse an integral part of the story: a building that has its own history; its own creaks and shadows.
The play also blurs the two worlds of the performance and the events on which it is based – not least during an unfortunate power surge that plays havoc with lights and distant alarms for a few minutes. Actors Robert Goodale (Kipps) and Daniel Easton (The Actor) handle the interruption admirably, but a fraught audience is clearly uncertain what to make of it when it is announced that the play will resume in a few minutes. It’s indicative of The Woman In Black’s insidious power.
The performances here are vital, with Easton’s The Actor having to convey Kipps’ incredulity, naivety and growing terror. Robert Goodale is superb as the stiff elder Kipps and has to act out a number of different guises that the younger Kipps can react to. With little more than facial expressions, voices, record of BBC sound effects, the odd overcoat, a smoke machine and a minimal set the two actors skilfully build tension and pace. Those 30 years in the West End have honed a product as completely as The Actor moulds Kipps into a convincing performer.
It’s well into the second half before any of the scares really take hold. The play thrives off the sense of uncanny – lethal marshes shrouded in sea fret, an abandoned house with a locked door and rocking chair with a life of its own. A dead child, a mystery and a pale, wasting woman. When The Woman In Black turns the screw it’s as electrifyingly shocking as a dousing with scalding water.
But there’s something lingering too: the woman’s white face and the tragedy of Kipps’ situation make The Woman In Black as much of an exploration of grief. We may not relate to ghouls and mysterious bumps in the night but we all understand loss, dread.
“There is nothing here to frighten or harm me, only emptiness,” says young Kipps upon entering the dreaded Eel Marsh House. By the end of the play it’s clear that there’s plenty to fear in emptiness.
The Woman In Black
Until 1 February