Set play

6th July 2001 at 01:00
THE WOMAN IN BLACK. By Susan Hill. Fortune Theatre, London.

The Woman in Black, an adaptation of Susan Hill's novel by Stephen Mallatratt, is not just a success story - it's a phenomenon. In the 13 years since it was first put on, there have been more than 5,000 performances, and almost 2 million theatre-goers have seen the play.

Set in a theatre, it is a two-hander which shows what happens when Arthur Kipps, a Victorian lawyer who has been cursed, asks an unnamed actor to help him act out and exorcise his tragic story, which involves a gloomy house and a ghost.

Although the play's spooky effects, such as mysterious knockings, fleeting shadows and a creepy masked figure, are very familiar, it mixes suspense and shock effectively. When I saw it, the electric scream at one of its dramatic climaxes set off a riot of yells in the audience.

Director Robin Herford, whose production has run at the Fortune Theatre since 1989, and will tour in the autumn, says: "Even the roughest kids fall under its spell. They start off blase, but they come out at the end all excited, talking about it - kids have a much more ready access to their emotions and their imaginations."

Mallatratt's "extraordinary adaptation", he says, "enhances the book by giving it an outer bracket, in which Kipps asks the actor for help with staging his chilling tale". The story "includes all the classic devices of Victorian spine-tinglers: the lonely house on the marsh with its locked room and terrified locals". The adaptation has "a clear sense of period in the language of the characters, which would be easy to send up - but both actors resist that temptation.

"Audiences are totally complicit with all the devices of the drama right from the start. A convention - such as using a props box as a pony trap - is whatever we want it to be. Both Kipps and the actor, Herford says, "are representatives of the audience on stage", and the play happens in the minds of the audience, so it is as much about theatre as an art form as it is about a haunting.

Herford attributes the play's enormous success to the fact that "it is such an extraordinary story - and people love narrative". The stage version is "conceived in wholly theatrical terms" and "celebrates what theatre can uniquely do - it just wouldn't work on the screen".

Aleks Sierz Fortune Theatre, London 020 7836 2238 until December. Tour details: 020 7323 2355. Teacher's notes: In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, by Aleks Sierz, is published by Faber. Website:

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