Ian Waller enjoys a night of genuinely scary Gothic horror

Surely a theatre productions can’t really be scary, can it? Yes it can and I have the tightly-gripping finger tip-sized bruises on my foreman, courtesy of my partner sitting next to me, to prove it. The production in question was The Woman in Black, now celebrating its 30th anniversary with a tour that includes a visit to the Theatre Royal in Bath ending on 26 November, and for the uninitiated, this is definitely not a production to take the children along to – book that babysitter now.

With a mysterious house, terrifying tales of ghostly apparitions, screams in the night and of course, the woman in black herself, this is an evening of classic Gothic horror. And yet for most of its telling, this story uses just a few props – a couple of chairs, a giant hamper and a selection of costumes – that throughout transform the stage from offices to railways carriages, hostels to the spooky Eel Marsh House where the story reaches its terrifying zenith. And it’s this stripped-down feel, combined with clever lighting and sound effects, that helps this production become the success it is, allowing the talented actors to draw the audience into their strange and eerie tale.

As that tale unfolds, we’re introduced to the timid Arthur Kipps, a solicitor so disturbed by the events that he encountered at the old Eel Marsh House that he asks the help of an actor to exorcise the memories and the dreadful grip that it still holds over him through a stage production of the story. As the actor takes on the role of the solicitor, the audience travels with him to the salt marshes of the East Coast and the characters that live – and died – there, as he uncovers the terrible truths of the stories that hide behind the closed shutters of the old house.
The great skill of this production is the way that the world of the actor and his employer cleverly and inevitably blend and merge. The build up is actually quite slow, you might even wonder if you have arrived at the wrong production. In the early stages there’s more comedy than dark drama, with the actor encouraging and cajoling the solicitor to give his story more life. But as the story develops, the grim reality of the situation takes hold.

Throughout, the central parts of the solicitor and the actor, as well as numerous additional characters, are wonderfully played by David Acton and Matthew Spencer, the latter full of energy as the young actor, the former impressively creative as he switches identities and personalities with a wonderful stagecraft and skill.

But this is a story with a third presence, one who is rarely seen and when she appears, even for a split second, the result is a most likely shrieks and screams from the suitably petrified audience – particular the school party up in the gods. Indeed, The Woman in Black is proof that yes, a theatre production can indeed be scary, very scary indeed – and extremely enjoyable in the process. Book your tickets now, if you dare…

Tickets £18.50 – £34.50 on 01225 448844, www.theatreroyal.org.uk