This 19th century Gothic novel has been the subject of many adaptations, including an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and several film, TV, and theatre adaptations.
This latest production by Heady Conduct Theatre, making a one-night stop at Norwich Playhouse as part of a short summer tour, takes a decent stab at telling the convoluted story but never quite ignites.
The opening – with Joanne McGarva singing in an early outing of the mysterious titular woman in white – certainly has impact, but in part for the use of microphones in the intimate Playhouse space. It’s a bit of a trend for young companies to use head mics routinely, and while understandable for outside spaces or larger venues it softens the electric excitement of live theatre in a smaller auditorium.
McGarva is quickly joined by the ensemble cast, with Clementine Mills, Simon Rodda, and Ross Virgo playing more than ten roles between them. Some of the characterisations are a little flat or crassly indicated by omnipresent props – I’m not sure whether they were concerned the audience would forget that key character Walter Hartright is an artist if he was seen without a blank canvas under his arm, or it just helped Rodda remember who he was playing at that point.
Mills’ main character got the best lines, and her performance sparkled more than most, but her sharp asides failed to bring out the social commentary that underlie Wilkie Collins’ tale.
The staging is quite basic and while there are some nice touches – McGarva’s short appearance behind a quilt as a bed-ridden uncle, and ‘camera flashes’ for wedding pictures among them – they are not enough to make up for the generally basic boxing, lighting, and design.
The most frustrating thing though is the fragmented storytelling; the piece would work better with a streamlined script that reduces the number of scenes and ancillary characters, giving us and the cast more meat to chew on. There is potential here, but it gets lost in its own complexity.