Behind the Woman in Black

For the hundredth time, I have to bite back the reply that The Woman in Black isn’t scary at all – it is actually full of bunnies and rainbows.

I’m working as an usher at a the Fortune theatre.There is something especially unique about working in a theatre that has housed the same ghost story for almost a quarter of a century. 

It may, perhaps, seem surprising that this is London’s second longest-running play (The Mousetrap takes first place). It is an extremely simple production with a rather clichéd plot and very few effects, what with (officially) only two actors on the stage and an extremely sparse array of props. 

Part of the explanation may be that the play now seems to be tied to this tiny, old theatre which has, somehow, become part of the set, with rumours of ghosts haunting the building itself. The intimate auditorium lends itself to creating the perfect atmosphere of isolation, on which the play’s suspense-filled moments depend.

The fact that this is a ‘play within a play’ provides a meta-theatrical experience which can be, in turns, both comforting and unsettling. While there may only be two characters on stage most of the time, their lively and occasionally
humorous dialogue means that you soon start to collude with them. You quickly supplement the scarcity of props with your imagination, sharing this experience with the actors as well as your fellow audience members. 

So much of the play relies on the audience’s imagination, which makes the Woman herself much more of a terrifying figure: the boundary between reality and fiction becomes blurred. Indeed, this probably explains why there are myths surrounding the play itself. There are always a few audience members adamant that no aisle seat is safe, or convinced that they saw something out of the corner of their eye. It may be set in another era but the investment of the audience’s minds in the events on stage maintains a timeless connection, enthralling you in a way that few other plays can do. The active role, that the audience has no choice but to take, is what, primarily, explains its continued existence in the West End. It is what makes this play worth not just seeing, but experiencing.