What is so great about theatre is that every experience can be so different. Obviously a big part of that is simply in seeing a new play, but it is also much more. It can be the experience of discovering a new venue; or the way a theatre already known has been adapted for a new play; or because of a totally different type of audience. Or, like my visit to see Woman In Black, it can be because of who you go with. But more of that later…
Considering how long The Woman In Black has been playing on the West End and that it had spawned two films, it had never really crossed my mind to see it. Not until the evenings company, Jenna, had suggested it as she had just recently watched the second of those films. For a play that has been running for so long, I was as innocent to the story as Jenna was to the theatre, my only knowledge coming from a vague remembrance of the film trailer a few years back; a big house, a solicitor, a ghost, a bit scary.
Thankfully there is so much more to the play than that, as I was to find out from Jenna. The play and the film are poles apart in how they tell the story, and both in themselves far from the original book the play was based on.
The play begins with our solicitor, Arthur Kipps, now an elderly man, dryly reading out his story, so carefully written down due to his desire to finally tell his family the horrors of his youth. It’s mumbled and hard to hear, and when he is interrupted from the back of the theatre, for a moment you actually worry someone in the audience is already annoyed at the lack of clarity. Thankfully not though, and you soon discover that he has sought out the assistance of an actor to better tell his story.
It’s a clever way to tell the story, allowing for the whole performance to be done by just the two actors; elderly Kipps and young actor. Even as they interchange roles, not for one moment is there any worry about why Kipps has suddenly become someone else and the actor has suddenly become the young Kipps.
It’s also a device that allows for massive liberties with the simple staging. When Kipps asks how they can possibly demonstrate being on a carriage, the young actor pulls a large chest out and sits on it, bouncing up and down, “like this, this is our carriage.” Even more of a liberty, the need for a dog is foregone as they simply pretend it is there, the actors eyes following the dog across the stage, leaning down to stroke it. It’s done so well you do feel as if there is a dog present.
As the story unfolds, it is the classic ghost story; unfortunate death leading to a sorrowful ghost seeking revenge. But even with its simplicity, both in story and staging, the way it is portrayed is enjoyable, and the way the tension is pushed up makes the moments of horror more effective. It’s also interesting to see that some tricks are ageless; the use of a torch to allow something to be momentarily glimpsed is used here in almost the same way as in Ghost Stories, a much more recent show.
But all this is not why seeing this was so enjoyable. It was, as I have said, the company kept. At the interval we spoke about the play, and Jenna was eager to explain how it differs from the film; “in the film…” she begins, explaining parts of the plot that were not in the play, at least not in the first act. Possible spoilers for what was to come, as I tried to tell her, “yeah, and in the film…” she continued to tell me what happened, clearly not having noticed the subtle hint of me pointing out I didn’t know what was going to happen as I hadn’t seen the film. Maybe I should have kept to my original suggestion of bringing a gag along for the evening for her?
Annoying? Not at all. Funny and entertaining and adding to the pleasure of the evening? Oh yes indeed.
And as the second act played out in front of us, I realised why every theatre experience can be so different. Because there is no greater theatre experience than seeing someone so clearly taken in by the drama unfolding in front of them. A glance to my side gave me the view of Jenna perched right on the edge of her seat, head resting on hands, leaning forward. For someone who already knew the story, she was still so taken in, completely immersed in the live performance. As was I, her possible spoilers at the interval not in fact being such.
This is why theatre is so good, why I go again and again, because every time it’s a different experience, because something new can happen to make it so memorable. The play in front of you doesn’t have to be the greatest thing ever to be put on stage, it just needs to be something that gives a new experience in one way or another.
Tonight that new experience was the company, her enthusiasm, her ability to almost tell me the story without realising it, and the sight of her totally engaged with the two actors on the almost bare stage riding a wooden chest and stroking an invisible dog.