Based on information gleaned from a few post-theatre Google searches, I think it’s quite possible that I’m the only person in Britain who has had the dubious pleasure of attending a performance of The Woman in Black without prior knowledge of exactly what to expect.  Because, you see, in spite of the fact that it is wildly popular, has been running at the Fortune Theatre since 1989, and remains the destination of seemingly every school trip in the greater London area, I had never heard of it until a friend offered me a spare ticket last week.  So, when I took my seat, the only thing I knew to anticipate was something vaguely frightening.

It started off wonderfully.  Arthur Kipps stands vulnerable on a darkened stage, struggling to read through a manuscript in a low, wavering tone.  Then, lights up and an authoritative voice booms from out in the lobby.  A ghost?  Some sort of tyrannical madman?  No… It is soon revealed that this troubled reader has employed a young actor to help him tell the story which haunts him in order to put ‘to rest’.  The ensuing two hours are to be comprised of Kipps’s and his instructor’s attempts to tell this story.  The ‘actor’ plays Kipps; Kipps plays everyone else; the entire play is to be predicated on Kipps’s desperate need for catharsis.  He doesn’t want to tell his story, but he asserts that it NEEDS TO BE TOLD.

That initial framing device not only allows for some comic relief in the first act, but it also raises some interesting questions about the nature of storytelling.  The ‘actor’ insists the story must be performed, for the sake of the audience; Kipps maintains that he wants only to tell it for himself, to purge.  And, as time wears on, the recitation becomes increasingly theatrical until the two actors and their audience are all caught up in the drama of a play complete with ‘recorded noises’ and accents and makeshift props.  They build tension to a point, and then they turn the lights up and drop their ‘characters’ to break it.  The stakes rise higher as the telling becomes more staged because it seems to assert that drama can tell truths better than plain words can.  Simultaneously, the plot grows ever more harrowing as unexplained, ghostly events begin to occur.  And, as the curtain drops at the end of Act I, I am convinced that I’m watching a captivating, self-aware thriller.

After that, Act II was an utter letdown.  It abandoned all of its fun formal games, and turned into a spoof of everything horror.  It was all sound effects, predictable twists, and cheap attempts to make the audience squeal.  It felt like the end of a ghost tour in which, after two hours of interesting stories and spooky historical anecdotes, there’s inevitably a man in a mask who sneaks up behind you in a graveyard only to make you jump.

I was most disappointed by the fact that the back story to the ghostly events was little more than a shallow afterthought, squeezed in between the beating heart soundtrack and hokey lighting effects.  Ultimately, both the staging and the writing abandoned any attempt to be genuinely haunting in order to incite momentary fear in the audience (and to be fair, the stalls were atwitter with screams).  Perhaps I took it all too seriously.  Or maybe in not knowing what to expect, I came to expect too much.  But, for me, the latter half of the play is a devolution that neither gels with the tone of the first act, nor warrants the West End ticket prices.

Or maybe it’s just that my ghosts choose to attire themselves in different colours.

The Woman In Black is booking until December 2010 at the Fortunes Theatres, for more information see the website.