Those who write off the play The Woman in Black as the stage version of the eponymous 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first movie role after the Harry Potter series, have it all backwards.

In fact, the play’s West End director Robin Herford, who plays protagonist Arthur Kipps both in the 2004 and current Singapore runs,  says, “If you have seen the film, you have not seen the story of The Woman in Black as created by Susan Hill, but a version very loosely based around her novel!”

Claiming to be “the most terrifying live theatre experience in the world”, the low budget play, unlike the film, has little visual effects. Those familiar with the movie’s unfolding of events in the character’s reality may also be thrown off in the play, which has the tale narrated many years in the future.

As a story, The Woman In Black unfolds as lawyer Arthur Kipps recounts his horrifying experience at Eel Marsh House through an actor (played by Anthony Eden) he hires to aid his retelling the story.  As a counterpoint to the employee who acts as the young Kipps, Arthur plays all the other characters he had interacted with all those years ago.

Then a junior solicitor, Kipps was sent to attend the funeral of a client, widowed Mrs Alice Drablow. There, he alone sees a mysterious sickly young woman dressed in black standing in the shadows at the church. It doesn’t help that Horatio Jerome, a local enlisted to aid him, practically collapses when Kipps mentions the enigmatic woman.

After his first sighting of her, our hero faces a series of terrifying and unexplainable events that scared him out of his wits during his stay at the lonely Eel Marsh House while looking for Drablow’s important documents, which is why he must engage in this recount to exorcise the demons…

Kipps later discovers that the woman is actually the late Jennet Humfrye, who led a dreadful life and lost her child to the marshes that surrounded Eel Marsh. Any sighting of the deceased Humfrye led to tragedy as she murders the children of anyone who sees her. It’s no wonder no one in town wants to talk about her.

The play, which celebrated its 10,000th performance on Friday the 13th, making it one of the longest running theatre productions in London, was first produced in 1987 with a measly budget of only £1,000 (S$ 2,053) for props and costumes. This frugality didn’t allow for other luxuries either, as Herford could only afford to pay 4 actors, which posed an insane challenge for the director as the tale revolves around so many characters.

Just as with the original production, the Kallang Theatre set was simple to a fault and the props, minimal. Dominating the stage is a plain backdrop that did double duty as a screen for silhouettes to be shown. The ingenious use of lighting also served as a way to change scenes, with the backdrop hiding the show’s iconic nursery set.

While this backdrop may not appear impressive, the lack of elaborate props meant that you couldn’t be distracted from the acting and scripting. Herford and Eden made a powerful duo as both captured dynamics of the relationship between the jaded solicitor and an eager actor succinctly.

Unsurprisingly, Herford delivers beautifully, portraying various townspeople with such finesse that though it was essentially just 1 person playing the supporting cast, it took no effort for the audience to know exactly which character Herford was acting at that time.

The ingenious use of the entire hall, as well as its sound system only made the play all the more eerie. A strange woman in black can be seen silently popping in from where the audience is seated, while the duo made use of the walkways, running up and down the aisles when the scene saw fit.

On top of that, the sound effects used in the play served to heighten the sense of fear, had people cowering in their seats as screams were played at different corners of the theatre, giving the impression that the ghoulish woman was all around, moving across the hall at lightning speed, watching and waiting for her next victim.

While the experience was spine-chilling (with everyone watching their backs in fear an entity in black would just materialise behind them), there were plenty of amusing moments to lighten the sombre show, as the duo constantly made jibes at each other and allusions to “the audience” in the theatre, which exists in our reality, but not in the reality belonging to Kipps and the actor.

In all, the simplicity of the presentation was a blessing in disguise, as its writer, Stephen Mallatratt  (who’s written episodes of the Brit soap opera Coronation Street) ably used the viewers’ imaginations to amplify the horror quotient, making it terrifying in different ways for each individual.

Additional Information
Runtime: Dec 11 to Dec 15
Ticket Pricing: $68 – $128 or $48 – $88 for students, available on SISTIC.

Photos courtesy of Craig Sugden