Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from the novel by Susan Hill
Newtheatricals, Lunchbox Theatre Productions and Singapore Repertory Theatre
The Woman in Black is to our times what The Mousetrap was to the mid-20th century. It’s been running for almost 20 years, has been seen by over 3 million people, and is full of chills and thrills. It’s highly professional, very cleverly plotted, hugely entertaining and extremely theatrical – which means, in effect, that it has no soul.
That’s not to say that it’s bad theatre, and you can see why it’s been running for so long, because the tension is well maintained and the shocks, when they finally come, are very effective – I have to admit to screaming and clutching my companion’s arm when the first bolt came out of the blue.
It’s a very old-fashioned ghost story, about a spooky old house, a dead widow, a long-hidden mystery and a young solicitor who is plunged into the middle of it all, having to spend nights alone in the deserted house sorting through old Mrs Drablow’s papers. The narrative technique is much more modern than the Agatha Christie model, though, for the story is told by a narrator (John Waters) who takes his manuscript to a young actor/director (Brett Tucker), hoping for some ideas about how to present this horrid tale to the world , for “it must be told”.
The young actor tries to instil some basic performance skills into the elderly author, who is such a bad reader that we don’t know whether to despair of or laugh at him, until the actor decides on a bit of role-playing, where he will play the elder man telling the tale, and the older man will take on the other parts, so that he can distance himself from the horrors that he has seen.
And so our story begins. All the elements of high melodrama are here, from the deserted house surrounded by sea mists and quicksands (you’ll hold your breath in terror as the little dog is eventually saved from a sandy grave), to a ghost in the attic, strange noises in the night, and lights that mysteriously go on and off. As the tale progresses, the narrative becomes the real drama, and the initial two people, the actor and his pupil, morph into characters in the narrative, until fact mingles with fiction so cleverly that, as audience, we lose our objectivity and suspend our disbelief until we are totally sucked into the whirlpool of the narrative.
At least, that’s the intention. But once the first shock/horror moment occurred, people in the audience started to laugh and the melodrama began to send itself up, and all we were able to do was admire the brilliance of the plotting and the talents of the actors.
But I must change that last word to the singular, for Brett Tucker, no matter how much of a spunk he may be on film and television, and no matter how he may set female viewers’ hearts racing as he does unmentionable things to long-suffering cows in McLeod’s Daughters , is a prime example of a screen actor out of his depth on stage. He is in control neither of his English accent nor his pace, and at times speaks so fast that I wished for a close-up of his face so that at least I would be able to lip read. His is a breathless, wait-for-it performance that too obviously sets up the moments of tension, and makes most of the subsequent bombshells very predictable.
His performance is a likeable but naïve Australian version of the anxious young man, so lacking in subtlety that it makes an unhappy contrast to John Waters’s absolute control of the many characters he has to play. The manifest disparity between the acting styles of the two men makes it seem as if they are in different plays, which robs the whole production of its integrity.
Waters’ performance is a lesson in multiple role-playing. His changes from the elderly author to the many minor characters in his own story are achieved effortlessly with a different hat or a different accent, and he underplays so effectively that his very stillness commands attention. Here is a rare chance to see a consummate artist at work, and he’s a joy to watch.
As a piece of commercial theatre, The Woman in Black is an enjoyable frivolity which combines lots of laughs with an acceptable amount of terror, but it’s more in the line of a ghost tale for teenagers than a true horror story – Kerry Greenwood rather than P D James, if you want a literary analogy. I wouldn’t take pre-teens to see it, for it has the nightmarish qualities that can seriously disturb unsophisticated minds, but for grown-ups who like a good laugh as well as a few shocks along the way, it’s pretty good. I don’t regret having seen it, but it’s not one of those plays that will live in my memory.
Directed by Robin Herford
Resident director Jason Langley Playing 9 – 20 August 2006: Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 1pm, Sunday matinee at 3pm
Duration : 1 hour 45 minutes, no interval