Review: The Woman in Black

Stephanie Cottle finds the mysterious woman can silence even the most distractible of audiences. 30 March, Grand Theatre, Blackpool

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Blackpool’s Grand Theatre opened its doors only briefly on the opening night of The Woman in Black while the audience hurried inside away from the treacherous gales and sidewinding sleet. The production claims to be ‘the most terrifying live theatre experience in the world’ and the weather certainly did provide an adequate backdrop for an evening of chills.

There was a surprising amount of children in attendance, giddy in their anticipation of the evening performance, which did prove infectious when seated among the school trip. But fears about their lack of concentration were realised before the performers were able to begin to scare, and the intimacy of the performance was hindered. There were distractions where growing levels of intensity should have been, and instead of crisp silence, crisp packets.

The first ten minutes of the performance, which focuses on theatre devices, seemed lost among those not acquainted with the mechanics of performance. The genre itself has something to answer for here. The nature of this type of storytelling leaves the audience asking, ‘When will it start to get scary?’ and the thrill seekers are left impatient. There was a definite change in atmosphere once the characters approach the famous waters around Eel Marsh House.

The children in the seats around mine became swept into the story as it gained momentum. Malcolm James, playing a variety of roles, came into his own as he captured the town folk’s fears and tensions beautifully. Simple items of costume indicated each character change and made for swift and effective transitions between scenes.

After the interval the pace free falls and the scares become more frequent. Playing the actor, Matt Connor’s time on stage alone was gripping – the long pauses in speech filling the theatre with torturous silence. When it broke, it was suddenly and without warning – a clash of tin buckets or the shrill shrieks of the woman in black. Audience emotions mirror the characters as we will him forward into danger. The children in attendance were, by now, wide eyed and clinging on to each other for support, no flickering light of a mobile phone, crisp packets abandoned. The atmosphere could not have been better and every face in the room, young and old, was stricken with fear.

It is a story that has been told and re-told. The gripping Susan Hill novel manifested as theatre, then as film. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation has been the most successful ghost story to be brought to live theatre. The reason? It not only contains a gruesome tale of woe and misery, but it exposes the secrets of theatre. It enables audiences to see the surface of the performance, invites us to take it at face value and then provides a haunting alternative.

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