Given that The Woman in Black has been a West End cash cow for over two decades now, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s taken as long as it has to put some of Susan Hill’s other work on stage. However,Clive Francis’ adaptation of her novella The Small Hand is a cautionary tale as to why such conversions aren’t always a good idea, and had this piece not had Hill’s name attached to it, it’s hard to imagine that it would ever have reached the stage.
The stage version of The Woman in Black is genuinely frightening, but while there are many scary things about this new production, almost none of them are deliberate. Hill, as an author, specialises in atmosphere; she takes what are often fairly clichéd horror tropes from another era and, through linguistic sleight of hand, makes them compelling and even surprising to a modern audience. She’s a wordy writer whose prose relies heavily on description to create this atmospheric quality, which isn’t an easy thing to translate to the stage. Faced with the task of turning such a descriptive tale into something active and dramatic, Francis seems to have decided simply not to bother: huge chunks of text are recited in heavy handed scene setting, making this seem less like a play than an Halloween edition of Jackanory.
When the actors are actually allowed to do something more than regurgitate the text their efforts are further hampered by director Roy Marsden’s uneven pacing and a fondness for exposition that removes any sense of intrigue and hammers the mystery flat: on the rare occasions we actually see something happening rather than it being described to us, the following scene usually consists of the protagonist reciting exactly what just happened to another character. We know this already, we were there: listening to the whole thing again just pads out a piece that already feels overlong.
The plot twists are implausible, and the dialogue stilted, with many of the exchanges either unconvincing or baffling, from the psychiatrist who merrily moves from discussing the panic attacks of the protagonist Adam Snow on to whether he has ever experienced paranormal events (you won’t find that in the DSM Manual, I suspect) to a brother whose response to Adam’s description of how he has been plagued by nightmares about being near water and drowning is to suggest a nice relaxing stroll by the river.
There’s little the cast can do with such material, and it shows. As the haunted protagonist Adam, Andrew Lancel is not particularly likeable or believable, and his terror comes across as overblown theatrics rather than genuine fear. Diane Keen and Robert Duncan gamely struggle through a host of roles, some of which are more suited to them than others, and though Duncan in particular manages to wring some humour from the piece, the characterisation throughout is thin.
There are some minor scares, mostly due to clever staging and an admittedly beautiful set, courtesy of designer Elroy Ashmore (plus the evocative use of video projections by Nina Dunn), but all the book’s nuance, layering and subtlety has been lost, stripped away and replaced by a few thunder claps and showy effects that do little but highlight the shortcomings of the production.