When I first picked up Susan Hill’s gothic masterpiece, The Woman in Black, I was so unnerved by the novel I had to limit my reading to daylight hours. That book freaked the bejaysus out of me. And so it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I tripped along to The Lowry last night to see the stage version.
Although I lived in London for nearly 15 years, I never made it to the long-running West End production of Hill’s book. I meant to but somehow I never got round to it. The reviews were always glowing, replete with phrases such as “spine-chilling”, “terrifying” and “nerve-shredding”. I did see the film (scary but disappointing in comparison to the original material) and the theatrical version has long been on my list of things to do.
I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t the show I saw in Salford. All the ingredients were there: the adaptation by playwright Stephen Mallatratt was ingenious, Robin Herford’s direction was slick and the use of a few stage props to recreate numerous scenes worked perfectly. And then there was the acting – also excellent. Both Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden were faultless and both displayed virtuoso talents throughout (no mean feat for a two-hander approaching two hours). So why didn’t I enjoy it?
Without wishing to give too much away, the plot centres on a blood-curdling series of events in the past of Arthur Kipps (Forsyth). As the story unfolds, the audience are taken through the character’s history as his world turns blacker and blacker. It’s a good yarn by anyone’s standards. Perhaps I would have been more enthralled if I’d never read the book and never seen the film? But me mum had experienced neither and she felt much the same as I as the curtain came down. Praps the evening would have been better were it not a glorious summer’s day? Maybe. But, on reflection, I think the main reason was this: the Lowry’s Lyric theatre was too big. Yes, it’s brilliant that there is demand in the North West for an evening at the theatre on this scale – but it was to the detriment of the production. And it’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re surrounded by morons. To the man in front of me who spent the entire second half texting, I wish bad things for you.
And perhaps we as modern theatre-goers (with Xboxes and HD TVs at home) are just less impressed by theatrical artifice. In Hill’s novel, there are about a dozen characters. In the theatre, there are two (well, two with speaking parts…). Personally, I loved the economy of the production and the clever staging but it’s sad to say that it didn’t hold my attention. I’ve been struggling to find a way to express this and then I read a review of Nottingham Playhouse‘s The Kite Runner. “Too much tell and not enough show,” wrote the journalist. Quite so.
Review by Helen Nugent
What : The Woman in Black
Where: The Lowry, Salford Quays
When: until May 11, 2013
More info: www.thelowry.com/event/the-woman-in-black
Images: scenes from The Woman In Black @ Fortune Theatre. Touring Cast, ©Tristram Kenton