On Tuesday evening, I attended the press night of a new play at the Theatre Royal Windsor, to write a review of it for Baylis Media, who publish all the papers in east Berkshire.
So excited was I, and the friend I took to see it. In fact, my friend Paul was unhealthily excited. I would venture that he was giddy. I thought he might need an oxygen mask at one point. This is because we are both hardcore fans of Susan Hill and her novella-turned-play-turned-movie The Woman In Black. The stage version of that is sickeningly good. I haven’t seen anything else like it. It ingeniously takes the story and turns it into a-play-within-a-play. You are meant to actually be in a creepy old theatre whilst watching it, yet its use of light, sound and storytelling takes you beyond the stage and onto causeways, the homes of spinsters, graveyards and creaky train carriages. I can’t even start analysing it further lest this blog post turns into being about The Woman In Black rather than what it’s supposed to be about – The Small Hand.
The Small Hand is one of Hill’s more recent ghost novellas that has been seized by a different adaptor and turned into a play, under the wing of Theatre Royal Windsor big boss Bill Kenwright. I’m sure all involved are hoping that this play will go on to west end and Hollywood deals, but I’m telling you now, it will not. Disappointing is not the word, and anyone with knowledge of how to properly utilise the tools of the theatre with gravitas will have been sitting in that audience biting their fists!
I wasn’t so scathing in my review, yet the article I wrote on the play was rejected! It would seem that Berkshire’s local media are not ballsy enough to actually profess a reviewer’s actual opinion of the play that they are reviewing. I think perhaps there’s a bit of an inner circle situation going on here that the likes of the Guardian or the Independent wouldn’t succumb to thanks to artistic integrity. The Windsor Observer published this gushing review by a guy named Tim Cole who literally must have been watching a totally different play, up the road.
Meanwhile, the Maidenhead Advertiser published, in place of me, a series of quotes from one of the play’s actors Robert Duncan, who’s decision to shout muffled sentences in his attempt to play a posh Lord-of-the-manor type character made my right eye begin to twitch.
Anyway, waste not want not; here’s my review:
“Any ghost story written by Susan Hill, from now on, has a very high standard to live up to after the enormous success of her 1983 gothic novella The Woman In Black. This tale was beautifully adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt in 1987 and has been running in the West End, and touring the country, for nearly 30 years. So when Clive Francis took up the task of translating one of Hill’s more recent ghost stories, The Small Hand, onto the stage, he had some big shoes to fill. Huge shoes, in fact.
Sadly, the shoes remain disappointedly empty.
The Small Hand is a splendid ghost story – one of overgrown manors, tortured protagonists and disturbing hauntings. Much like she does in The Woman In Black, Hill draws upon the macabre theme of a child’s untimely death, and the resonance this leaves behind. The tale is ripe for the picking when it comes to re-working it for the stage. This adaptation tries. The set, sound and lighting designers have attempted to draw upon the tools that make “ghost theatre” so nerve shredding. Sudden noises, atmospheric lighting and clever staging allow an audience to feel truly engrossed in a story of intense paranormal threat. The Small Hand, however, overdoes it on the bangs and screams and the lighting is not localised enough. The screen at the rear of the set, however, is well used to display creepy woods, murky clouds and startled birds, adding a superb effect to the production.
Where this really lacks though, is the script. Bluntly, it doesn’t do the story justice. Humour is attempted in places it doesn’t belong. The narrative veers off onto a path far from Hill’s original plot. And there are not enough scares. And by scares, I mean truly nerve-shredding, spine-chilling scares.
The cast let the side down also. Andrew Lancel is totally unsympathetic as the lead, Adam Snow, who whines throughout the entirety of the play; Robert Duncan shouts his way through it, displaying a vast inability to alter his multiple character role, only separating them with different items of clothing; Diane Keen plays her several parts with a little more separation, albeit with some questionable accents.
Overall, I was underwhelmed and felt rather down-trodden by the end. This production didn’t come at all close to the quality of it’s long-running sister play, The Woman In Black. But comparisons aside, this was a ghost story, and it was meant to scare me. It didn’t.”