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Is She Behind You?

NANCY HEATH, REBECCA BAINBRIDGE AND TARA CARLIN review ‘The Woman in Black’ at the Fortune Theatre.

For a horror to evoke true fear, its audience must buy into the premise: the world and its rules. As I waited for the performance to commence, I anticipated the fear and exhilaration I was about to experience. By the end of the evening however, I was left with a peculiar feeling of having been cheated. The framed narrative style separates the audience too far from the subject matter, leaving them removed and, thus, ‘safe’. At one of the climactic points of Act I when the Woman is seen for the first time, creating the earliest scattered screams of the night, the ‘young actor’ breaks character, calls cut and causes normalcy to return. The audience exhale. It was all a play. Within a play. From this moment onwards—the first point where their audience were almost fooled into being fearful—the action lends itself more to startled laughter, as the audience jumps rather than screams in fear.

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The metadrama of having the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, and a young actor play out a theatre production of the former’s tragic life events falls short of the horror that pervades his story. When I read the end of the novel for the first time, I was astounded by how Susan Hill’s writing was so believable and prophetic; the events were presented like a punch in the stomach. The framed narrative works well in the novel medium as it easier to adjust to and is more believable when presented in a diary-like form. However, this does not translate so well on stage, where the visual and vocal interruptions of the ‘real world’ have a more disjointed effect on the chronology of the story. The production borders on melodrama due to the evident artifice of emotion used to convey the story. The sinister overtones are reduced to an inept recitation of events, similar to the opening of the play when Kipp begins to stiltedly orate his tale. It is made harder for an audience to keep in mind their fear and suspense of the approaching fog when an imaginary dog is being thrown an imaginary ball. This form, nonetheless, does send the audience away with a shiver down their spines by lending itself to a greater plot-twist (spoiler alert) than the novel: neither of the ‘two’ men cast the part of the Woman in Black.

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Yet, the supernatural nature of the Woman herself is not enough to fully engage the audience’s fear. Perhaps my sense of disappointment is partly due to the minimalist use of scenery and props which, when combined with the cast comprised of only two members, meant the pace was slow and lacked the exhilaration of the novel and recent film. In Hammer Film Productions’ version, featuring Daniel Radcliffe, the use of child actors succeeded in creating a greater sense of peril. They provided a visual representation of childhood innocence whilst conveying a sense of vulnerability, evoked by their lack defence against the potency of the Woman’s wicked power. Hence the absence of children in the play seems counterintuitive; there is no straightforward reminder of who the Woman’s victims are nor a visual cue for the audience’s pity and sympathy. The helpless desperation of the children and their parents, educed through the agonising loss of children’s lives, is not tangible in the theatre.

At the time, I left the theatre slightly disappointed—I wanted to be scared out of my seat and I was not. However, despite my protestations to the contrary, I have looked over my shoulder six times so far whilst writing this—the Woman’s pale face lingering on the edge of my conscious. Initially, the play left me unaffected, but in dark moments it does still creep back into your mind, making you wary, making you tense, and making you check the shadows for something that is not there…

‘The Woman in Black’ is showing until the 25 July. For more info and tickets click HERE