23. The Woman In Black
This week’s feature on London’s darker side is more of a review, simply because last week, Saturday 13th October, myself and my cousin ventured to see The Woman In Black stage show at the Fortune Theatre, on Russell Street in Covent Garden. For those of you who are not familiar with this chilling ghost story, it is an adaptation of Susan Hill’s fine book and has been running in the West End since 1989, and remains the longest running show second only to The Mousetrap.
Susan Hill’s atmospheric book was made even more chilling in 1990 when it appeared on television as a Christmas Eve ghost tale and scared many who were not expecting such a sinister tale. And for me, that film, which had strong echoes of some of the BBC’s adaptations of M.R. James classic spook tales, remains one of the most unnerving events in my life, but also one of the most inspiring. Yet for some reason I’d put the stage show off, and I regret that. Thankfully, I’ve experienced the play in all its dark, eerie and rich glory and have to say it’s truly terrifying. Considering it only features two actors throughout, and the shadowy ‘woman’ who isn’t credited, it has to be one of the most realistically compelling and haunting visions – in a theatre that has all the gothic splendour of a musty graveyard.
However, the Fortune Theatre is also rumoured to be haunted in the truest sense by several apparitions. It seems also that these few wandering spirits only reared their phantom heads after the play began its long running stint.
Previous members of the cast, mainly Sebastian Harcombe, experienced two strange episodes, the first several years ago as the ghastly apparition of the story appeared during the first graveyard scene. Sebastian, looking towards the woman in black, saw two figures on the right of the stage, whilst the actress at the time mentioned also that she’d been followed as she made her way to the stage. Sebastian also saw a grey figure, possibly a woman, lurking in one of the lower boxes of the theatre.
For those of a nervous disposition, it isn’t the real spectres that one should be concerned about in the place, but indeed the impact of the actual show – particularly the minimalist yet atmospheric stage, the stunning script, the nerve-shredding sound effects and the rare glimpses of the dreaded woman herself.
The Woman In Black is the perfect Halloween or Christmas ghost tale, told, acted and perfected like the finest works to have gone by more than a century ago. Whilst it looks as if it will remain embedded within Convent Garden’s history for many years to come, it seems as if the ghosts it has unintentionally raised will remain only half-glimpsed, and less terrifying. Hopefully.
By Neil Arnold
Picture taken from Joffley’s Flickr photostream under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 licence.