THE Theatre Royal audience proved it on Monday: the old tales remain the spookiest.
Don’t take my word for it – just ask the audience members nearest the stage for The Woman in Black, who shrieked more than you’d expect from a screening of the latest horror film.
The novel on which the play is based may have been written in 1980s, but the story is an Edwardian-set nod to Victorian Gothic – and an effective one at that.
It was adapted for the stage in 1987 and has proved popular ever since, drawing audiences into seats and exposing them to a world where haunted figures may appear at their side before joining the action on stage – so far, so spooky.
The Woman in Black doesn’t start on such an ominous note – a play within a play, the action falls to just two players, one an actor assuming the role of his companion in younger days, the other a reluctant old man, who just wants to have his story told and will act out every other part in the hope of putting an end to it.
The curtains ascend and yet the lights in the (rather apt) venue stay on – and there are a few laughs, as our older character, Arthur Kipps, struggles with the theatricality of it all.
He has written his memoirs – in it, an account of an early job as a junior solicitor, sorting paperwork at the house owned by a rich and recently deceased woman.
From foggy London to the atmospheric town of Crythin Gifford – and a towering house cut off by a marshy causeway – the two work through a dress rehearsal of the manuscript, neither giving too much away about the ending.
The genius twist is that the audience are led to believe that they, too, are on the outside and looking in at a story which took place decades before – until, that is, they spot the woman in black.
The build-up is extremely effective, moving from laughs (many about the constraints of having just two actors, and neither of them being able to play the trusty dog who accompanies our hero) to blood-curdling terror as the lights flicker and mysterious pounding emanates from behind a locked door.
What secrets still lurk at the musty Eel Marsh House, who is this mysterious and ghostly woman, and just what does it all mean for Mr Kipps – and the actor he has chosen to tell his story to?
The Woman in Black runs until Saturday, leaving you plenty of time to find out...if you’re brave enough to come face to face with the phantom herself, that is.