THE WOMAN IN BLACK (yes, honestly)

NOT QUITE A REVIEW, MORE A TRIP DOWN A SIDE ALLEY

I was on the early train up when news came that poor old Southwark had ,for the second time, been forced by illness to cancel two performances of Tokyo Rose.   Having a matinee- shaped space to fill, and a light drizzle starting,  what does a theatrecat do?   Obvious.  Its  feline mission is  to sniff around the corners of the reviving theatrical world in search of forgotten or even stale morsels. Its what cats do.  And the only other matinee on a Tuesday – apart from the clever Jermyn, already reviewed below – is  that hoar old chestnut The Woman in Black.  

    It has been resident in the humble Fortune theatre opposite the stage door of Lloyd Webber’s palatial Theatre Royal Drury Lane since 1989.  An almost Mousetrappy achievement.  And I had not seen the film, read the book, or been told whodunnit or whether it’s a real ghost, or anything.  Perfect.  The cheapest  matinee ticket is £ 27,  and the one I chose was what you might call immersive, being knee-cramped right up against the edge of the stage next to a raggedly draped section of pit which I assumed to be a sinister grave.  Quite liked it, once I went numb:  the sense an actor might tread on you is always exciting.  Behind me, two school parties (it’s often a set book, Susan Hill’s descriptive lyrical passages of writing being worth it).   Also a scattering of tourists, lured by the promise of a slick two-hours-with interval with some moments of utter terror and – a German lady observed to her friend as they left – “proper good-speaking English for learning”.  

      So what’s it like?  Better than the Mousetrap, for one thing.  It’s a two-hander:  Terence Wilton and Max Hutchinson both in turn being the solicitor who meets terror on the wild eastern marshes, in a desolate house where the enigmatic Mrs Drablow has died.  It’s nicely framed (good for school drama classes) as at first the young man tries to get the story told more dramatically by the old, traumatized lawyer who is haunted by memory, and then takes over, playing the part of him long ago, as the real man plays all the other parts in a variety of Mummerzet accents which don’t sound nearly as east-coast as this North Sea purist would have liked.   But then, he’s an elderly London solicitor playing people he met fifty years ago, so fair enough.   And there is, of course, a woman. Who does not speak ,but terrifies the bejasus out of the school party, who squeak delightedly.  And let there be no spoilers (Mousetrap rules apply),  so let me just say that Robin Herford directs with tense aplomb, that our hero can scream for England,  that Mr Kevin Sleep’s lighting-plot is very important indeed, that it may be set (by Michael Holt). in grey drapes but there are Certain Things behind them.  Oh, and there’s an invisible dog.

    So I greatly enjoyed my two hours and don’t grudge it a penny.  Because it is wonderful to have theatre back at every level, actors and lighting crews working, audiences gasping,  and school parties remembering that it can be fun to gather and be told a creepy story without an agenda or the slightest intention to be ‘relevant and relatable’ to their lives.   And which isn’t a musical.

    I would not be so impertinent as to rate it.  It’s lasted 32 years and survived a pandemic, and it’s more fun than the bloody Mousetrap. I wandered on, contented, to the evening’s grander task of last-preview at the Gielgud of The Mirror And The Light. WHere, interestingly, my ticket was also a comparative bargain-basement one , knees against the stage front. Review later tonight after the embargo…

But here for the W in B cast and crew are some mice rejoicing at the end of the long, long Covid drought of theatre

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