The Observer

Susannah Clapp, 8 Jan 2012

Sunday 8 January -

Next month James Watkins's film of The Woman in Black will be released. For all the resources on which it can draw, for all that it stars Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer (I hope the stage has not lost her to the screen) and Daniel Radcliffe, the movie will find it hard to match the bounce-out-of-your-seat impact of the play. Ever since it opened more than 20 years ago, it has produced sounds – gasps, squeals, shudders, muffled screams – that are rarely heard in the stalls. Set in a misty Victorian East Anglia, it has glided effortlessly to Vienna and Australia, and translates particularly well in countries such as Japan and Mexico which have a strong tradition of ghost stories. The theatre – most fleshy of art forms – is remarkably effective at conveying the spectral. Watching this, with the deliciousness of shared fear, it seems amazing that so few attempts are made to scare audiences.

The genius of Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 novel is that it dares you not to believe in it. It doesn't try to mimic reality; it is diametrically opposed to the special effect. Set in a Victorian theatre, it has only two speaking actors, one of them shifting with the twist of a cap from one character to another. A props basket serves as a pony and trap and as the furniture for a house or office.

It is, like that other lovely potential long-runner The 39 Steps (five years old), a wonderful example of theatre technique on an austerity budget. It generates fear through simple surprises: in a deserted house a rocking chair creaks as if someone has just risen from it; behind a solitary figure a massive shadow steals along the wall. It magnifies fear by showing the terror on an actor's face: fright is contagious. It gives fear another dimension, for like all really good ghost stories The Woman in Black is grounded not in horror but in human pain and loss. The whole world, as contained in an auditorium, becomes threatening.



Man holding suitcase