Thursday, 10 March 2016

Woman in Black: Then & Now!


An elderly lawyer is obsessed with the notion of a family curse, which he believes was cast over him decades earlier by a malevolent apparition. After years of torment he enlists the help of a sceptical young actor to help him finally exorcise his soul!

The Woman in Black is a long running play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the book of the same name by Susan Hill, and has been hosted by The Fortune Theatre in London's West End since 2005.

I saw The Woman in Black for the first time when I was about fourteen years old on a class trip, it left a lasting impression and I've wanted to see it again ever since! Back then I didn't know that I would live almost the same amount of life again before finally getting around to it! 
In light of this I thought that it would make an interesting experiment to compare the two experiences, and let you know whether or not, in my own opinion, it has truly stood the test of time. Would it shock me, and the rest of the audience, now as it had then. On that first occassion everyone had been screaming; I hadn't realised that a play could be that scary! I had gone in brave and bold to come out pale and shaken.
This time around it was like I was seeing it again as a fourteen year old boy; the intensity of the performance and the genuine fear that I had felt had been locked up inside some deep, dark part of my brain for all this time. Occasionally these vivid memories have broken free and I've relived this incredible play in both fondness and fear; I remembered it as being completely terrifying. It had kept me awake at night for days afterwards... partly due to the fact that I genuinely believed in ghosts back then! So, was I now simply scared by the memory of being scared and how it had effected me as a youngster, or was the play itself really all I remember it as being cracked up to be? This was the big question!
I was full of nervous excitement and apprehension whilst waiting for it to begin. In many ways, like our protagonist, I had some spirits to exorcise... it was time for me to finally face up to The Woman in Black!
In many ways I think it was almost inevitable that it would fall a little short; I'm a much different person now than I was then- obviously! It was scary, but it wasn't fourteen year old pulling his hood up to protect him from the ghosties scary - of course! Let's delve a little deeper...
The performances cannot be faulted, the actors really do a spectacular job with minimal props and fairly limited space - I remember thinking it then, and I thought it this time too. The performers have changed between time, of course, but the quality of the performance hasn't! They do everything within their power to bring you into the scene through the sheer richness of dialogue and delivery; it's a very minimalist production with lots of simmering monologues. Through their words you can almost begin to see the misty marshes of the story come to life before you, and coupled with some great sound design everything becomes very real, very fast! There is a tireless, brooding intensity to this show; a slow creeping fear begins to boil in your gut as our characters transport us through mere language and gesture to the spooky, provincial backwater of Crythin Gifford (such a slipperily brilliant and evil sounding name!), a fictional market town on the east coast.
I did feel however that some of the jumps missed their mark in comparison to back then...but why? I wondered whether it was an issue with the audience rather than the play. Have we changed that much during the last decade or so? I think the answer must be a yes, but how so? I have of course - I've grown up, but that's not what I mean; there were teens in the audience as well, and they weren't jumping as I had expected them to. Do classic scare tactics no longer work on us as well?
Some think that we've collectively become something of a bunch of dismissive, desensitised, indifferent millennial douchebags who simply tut and shrug our way through life, and have become more used to using emojis than emotions. Could this really be the case? It's certainly a different world now to then... A member of staff told a group of schoolkids that there was to be no photography throughout the performance and it dawned on me that I didn't even have a cameraphone at fourteen! Have 21st century folk become immune to theatre-style shocks? I'm not sure, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it - the teens behind us certainly didn't seem as consistantly and vocally frightened as we had been! Maybe they were a little older, or a little braver, or maybe teens these days are just a little different, full stop.
That said; believe me when I say that there was still plenty of screaming! And a lot of the jumps were still right on the money! I kept looking at my girlfriend to see where she was on the scare-o-meter; often quite high!
I think that my position in the theatre last time compared to this time however played a huge part in my overall engagement and surely that of those around me too. I thought I'd go for the dress circle this time around for a greater overview of the whole stage - which we definitely got! Whereas, the teenage me had been sat at stage level, fully emersed in the action. Without giving too much away, a ground level seat gives a much more interactive experience in hindsight.
The dress circle position was not ideal for a few reasons; firstly I found my legs very squashed in the front row (maybe further back would have been better), and I was conscious of this throughout... Secondly, I just found it far too bright in the upper level; there were distracting exit lights on either side which prevented the scene from ever going completely black which meant that movement could be seen on stage at times when it should not have been visible. This meant that some of the magic of the scene changes were spoilt for me, which was a shame. Finally, I think going for the overview in the dress cricle itself was actually not the best idea; being right down amongst the action for the first viewing had meant that sudden ghostly appearances were that more instant, and had a greater impact.
So, what's the verdict?
Well, I would still definitely, and wholeheartedly, recommend this show to anyone and everyone, and especially as your introduction to the West End experience! My top tip however would be to get yourself a seat right down on the ground level in the middle of the action to experience the frights at their best. The performances are incredible, the story compelling and the use of props a joy to behold! It didn't quite live up to the hype I had built up for it over all these years but maybe that should have been obvious. Its not pre-internet era, ghost-believing teen scary but its pretty damn close! 
An incredibly well acted, chilling experience with one or two big jumps!

Pic: Londinium Now - shouldn't really have taken this, whoops!

Have you been to see The Woman In Black recently or back in the day? What are your memories of seeing it as a youngster? I'd love to hear what you have to say!

All opinions are my own.

A lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spectre of a Woman in Black, engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul. - See more at:
A lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over him and his family by the spectre of a Woman in Black, engages a sceptical young actor to help him tell his terrifying story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul. - See more at: