Although she’s written books and articles of all sorts, including a sequel to Rebecca, as well as winning the Whitbread, Somerset Maugham and John Llewelyn Rhys awards, and been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, writer Susan Hill is still probably best–known for her ghost story, The Woman in Black.
First published in 1982 and adapted only a couple of years later for the stage, the show is still running in the West End more than a quarter of a century on and tours almost non-stop. In fact, it’s become of the most successful UK stage plays ever and will be visiting the North West again in a month’s time.
It comes as some surprise then that Oldham Coliseum “are the first people brave enough”, according to Hill herself, to think of adapting her 1993 second ghost story The Mist In The Mirror for the stage.
“I’m very pleased they have chosen this particular book,” she told Northern Soul. “It was a joy to write because I used so many of my favourite settings, including Edwardian London, the River Thames, the old docks, an English country house, and the North Yorkshire moors. It also has some of my favourites of my own eccentric characters.”
Like all of the adaptations Hill allows, though, she has been determinedly hands-off in the page-to-stage process, leaving writing duties to Manchester Theatre Award-winning Ian Kershaw. In his turn, Kershaw has been working closely with innovative designers imitating the dog on this hugely entertaining piece of hoodoo hokum, directed by Kevin Shaw.
Although it draws heavily on the simple M.R. James/Dickensian technique of having a fireside narrator telling the tale of mystery and imagination, The Mist In The Mirror also makes considerable, often stunning, use of the cutting-edge video and sound technology that is imitating the dog’s trademark (who, given the amount of dry ice floating around the place here might think of calling themselves imitating the fog instead). There are some brilliant evocations, for instance, of a train journey, a search in a library, and a snow-storm on the moors. Slightly less effective, at least at this early stage, are the ‘Boo!’ appearances of the spooky young boy haunting our hero. They need to be tightened up a bit to really get the audience jumping out of their seats (although that didn’t stop my companion from gasping out loud and grasping my leg at one point).
The story follows one James Monmouth (Paul Warriner), recently returned to England after travelling abroad for most of his life and strangely obsessed with a travel writer called Conrad Vane. He’s determined to find out all he can about Vane, despite the constant warnings of everyone he meets (most of them played by Martin Reeve) to leave well alone, citing something ‘evil’ about the mysterious author. Of course, like all ghost stories, our foolish hero pays them no heed and insists on visiting several spooky locations on his own, even at one point trekking five miles across a moor in the dark through a snow-storm. At various points on this obviously ill-advised odyssey, he’s visited out of the gloom by a ghostly boy who might be his own deceased ancestor.
When I asked her recently why she thought The Woman in Black had proved so successful as a stage show, Susan Hill cited the way “it uses the theatre itself to make the audience use their imagination. It is frightening, although nothing really happens, at least that you actually see. The skill is to make sure it’s fundamentally theatrical, and has its frightening moments. Ghosts which just drift upstairs and take their heads off when they don’t have any reason to do so are not frightening, just pointless”.
Kershaw and The Mist in Mirror‘s show’s other contributors have obviously taken this sort of advice very much to heart, crafting a thoroughly theatrical experience which might well move audiences enough that they’ll still be flocking to see it a quarter of a century on from this world première.
By Kevin Bourke
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Ian Kershaw, click here
The Mist in the Mirror is at Oldham Coliseum from January 30-February 21, 2015 before touring the UK. Dates include Cast, Doncaster (March 24-28); Nottingham Playhouse (March 31-April 4); Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (April 14-18); Hull Truck (April 21-25); Theatre Royal, Wakefield (April 28-May 2); and Laurence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (May 5-9).
The Woman in Black tour includes Norwich Theatre Royal, Leicester Curve, Blackpool Grand, Salford Lowry, Bradford Alhambra and Buxton Opera House from February 9, 2015.