First of all, Wilkie Collins’ Victorian sensation novel The Woman in White is not the same as Susan Hill’s ghost story The Woman in Black. Sounds an easy enough distinction to make, and I’m sure in the calm of an internet blog post, with a cup of coffee and Wikipedia both within easy reach, dear reader, you will smile at our consternation. But there were five of us, a good proportion of whom remembered having read the book(s), taken students to see the show(s), or heard the most extraordinary things about either (or both) of them, and it took us most of our time in the bar beforehand to reach a consensus on which play we were, in fact, attending and whose memories belonged where. Personally I’m convinced I caught the barman humming “Lady in Red” satirically under this breath, but I couldn’t prove anything, so I had to be content with ordering my interval pint in a rather marked manner.
Had we but known, our contretemps in the bar was the ideal warm-up for seeing The Woman in Black. As those who’ve read the book will know (don’t start that again), Collins’ strong suit is suspense tinged with bafflement. When it works, you’re reeling from the last twist in the plot, and wondering where it’ll go next. When it doesn’t, you’re still trying to work out whose will has just been overturned by the return of the mysterious stranger who looks exactly like the missing heiress whose marriage records…and so the next twist is rather a moot point. We know who’s in the right (loyal and outspoken sisters, penurious young lovers who just happen to be called “Hartright”) and who’s in the wrong (drunken baronets, sinister foreigners with ridiculous shoes), it’s just going to take three hours and two intervals to work out exactly why. The scenes zoom by, thanks to Nicola Boyce’s skilful adaptation, and the epistolary form means there are plenty of excuses for characters to simply explain to the audience what has gone on since the last scene.
Unfortunately, modern audiences have trouble with platitude-spouting cardboard roles like Hartright, and since he’s one of the leads we spend an awful lot of time listening to him drivelling on about honour and lifelong devotion, trying not to hear the stifled giggles from the rows behind us. It’s a lousy role, and Thomas Brownlee can’t save it, which means that Lucy Cudden has to play Marian Holcombe without much of a foil. Neil Stacy’s urbane solicitor keeps the action moving with some fun character work until Colin Baker appears as Count Fosco, when the play really starts, about an hour into the production. Baker overpowers this show just as Fosco overpowers the novel, and all the best scenes are his. It’s an enjoyable production overall, but it does drag in places – and if you’re performing Wilkie Collins and the audience isn’t gripped, there’s not much else for them to think about.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, August 2011