The Woman in Black started out at the Stephen Joseph theatre as a small scale lunchtime show, back in 1987, without any thought that it might become the second longest running show ever to be staged in the West End- it has been running for twenty five years and there have been twelve national tours. Something about it touched a nerve. Quite simply Stephen Mallatratt took Susan Hill’s clever, middle of the road ghost story- the kind of thing which has a wide audience- and produced a pitch perfect piece of writing for the stage which was given an engaging and very theatrical production. It draws you in cleverly, and is genuinely frightening when you see it for the first time. It was one of the Stephen Joseph’s greatest successes in its first 60 years and it was no surprise to find another revival of it in the 60th anniversary celebration season. A safe choice but I think that we can forgive them that.
This production doesn’t put a foot wrong. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about seeing it again, having seen a young Martin Freeman in the SJT’s 1997 revival and got to know the twists and turns, but I am very glad that I did. Robin Herford, the original director, has been with the show for every production and every recast and this is obvious from the start, the whole thing runs like a well oiled machine. Every move, every line reading, has been proved by time to hit home when done correctly and the technical team, Denzil Hebditch and Charlotte Brooke manage a series of challenging sound and lighting cues faultlessly. By now I am probably making it sound like the equivalent of Sunday evening television, and but for the two actors at the centre of it it might well have been. Christopher Godwin and Tom Godwin bring it to life with great accuracy and energy. They establish an immediate rapport with the audience, which is important if you want those watching to be afraid, and we can lose ourselves in the story confidently, sure that they both care about telling it to us and know exactly how to do it. They make you feel that they are presenting it to you for the first time rather than trotting out an old war horse yet another time and nothing matters more than that. A lot is asked of them and they deliver. It also adds an extra frisson that they are father and son as this works perfectly within the play when we are taken back in time.
Obviously I am not going to say anything about the plot as one or two people may still not have seen it in spite of the film (which had drawn a few young people into the theatre) but it is a very classy piece of writing which allows you to scare yourself with a minimum of effort. We do that much more successfully if we are left to our own devices