Collins' classic still has air of mystery

The Woman in White

Wolverhampton Grand


IT seems quite remarkable that it has taken until now for a stage play of Wilkie Collins’ Victorian blockbuster to appear - that it seems is the real mystery of this intriguing tale.

There was the short lived 2004 musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a few silent films, a 1948 screen adaptation and even a Russian cinema version called Zhenshchina v belom while the BBC has managed two adaptations, the last in 1997, but no one has bothered to bring the novel to the stage, until now.

For producer Ian Dickens and his wife Nicola Boyce, who wrote the adaptation, it has been a labour of love and their creation could still do with a  few hugs to set it on its way after its world premiere at the Grand.

At three hours, including two short intervals, it is a tad long and a bit of judicious pruning should also help to inject a little more pace, but the affection for the book and the hard work that has gone into bring it to the stage shines through every scene.

Wilkie was  Charles Dickens’ protégé and first serialised the novel in Dickens’ magazine in 1859 where he was paid by the word, hence there are 700 pages of novel and a lot of words to condense into a play which has to contain all the elements of the book yet must stand on its own as a play - not everyone has read the book remember - and still finish before the last bus home.

Some characters fall by the wayside. Mrs Catherick, for example, mother of The Woman in White, Anne Catherick, only merits a mention in the play while Count Fosco’s missus, who is our heroine Laura’s aunt, doesn’t even merit that. As far as the play is concerned she does not exist.

But Miss Boyce manages to retain the basic elements, remaining true to Collins' plot and, to ensure audiences do not need to bring flasks, sandwiches and sleeping bags, she uses the device of a series of soliloquies by the main characters to both tell us their thoughts and fill in gaps in the narrative to condense the action. With so many threads, twists and turns it would be easy to get lost but she keeps us firmly on the path of the main story which, when it was published, was one of the first mysteries of fiction and one of the earliest, and still regarded as the best, sensational novel. A bluepint for the detective novel.

In the 1860s there was Woman in White mania with merchandising, clothing, perfume, toiletries . . . the whole works. I suspect there will not be quite the same result in Wolverhampton's shopping cemtres but the elements of the tale have not changed and it is still a pretty good mystery today, well told and well acted.


The use of  characters talking to the audience to move the tale on, a sort of lierary voice-over, was not a uncommon feature of the Victorian novel, by the way, and Wilkie himself in his preamble to The Woman in White explains that the tale of his book will be written by the pens of several people, rather like proceedings in court. Wilkie entered Lincoln’s Inn to study as a barrister earlier in his career, incidentally and the script follows that principle.

The Woman in White is Anne Catherick who appears as mad as a hatter having just escaped from the local asylum after being locked away by Sir Percival Glyde, played with a nice dollop of Victorian melodrama, a real cad and bounder, by Peter Amory who had plenty of practice at being evil as Chris Tate, in Emmerdale .

She is helped in her escape ny art teacher Walter Hartright, played with earnest zeal by Thomas Browlee, who is on his way to Limmerage House in Cumberland where  - pause for effect – it transpires nutty Anne stayed as a young girl – coincidence or what!

When he gets there his job is to teach two half sisters, Marian, played with just the right amount of feisty indignation by Lucy Cudden and Laura  who is played with a sort of innocence drifting from childish happiness to the depths of despair and, eventually, back to happiness again by Isla Carter.

The arrangement all goes pear shaped when our Walt falls in love with Laura, and she with him, which could cause problems with her impending marriage to – dramatic pause and music – Sir Percival. So our Walter has to leave but not before The Woman in White pops up again in the graveyard to warn of impending doom and that Sir Percival is not all he seems.


Enter solicitor Vincent Gilmore, nicely played with avuncular charm by Neil Stacy, who tries to protect Laura’s interest in the marriage but is thwarted by her invalid uncle and guardian Frederick Fairlie, a bundle of nerves, and don't we all know it, in the hands of Glyn Grain, and the scene is set for Sir Percival, who a dodgy member of the upper class and on his uppers to boot, to set about raiding his new wife’s fortune aided by his Italian friend, the scheming Count Fosco, played with obvious enjoyment and gusto by Colin Baker.

Also worth a mention  is Karen Ford, who was Miss Booth, the Art Teacher in Grange Hill, and here plays the faithful old retainer-cum-housekeeper Miss  Michelson, who has the best line in the play when she describes Sir Percival who, by this time is in a rapidly accelerating descent into his own personal hell, as "very over excited with wine" . . . as very overexcited as a newt, one might say.

With a fully fledged Victorian villain in the shape of a cruel husband fond of the demon drink the scene is set. Throw in a mysterious death, mistaken identities, threats, Walt's Italian art Prof friend Pesco, which provides a cameo role for Richard Tate, and a secret Italian society called the Brotherhood where the penalty for dishonour is death and  you would think there was enough plot already to fill any play.

But no we also have the revelation of Sir Percival’s scandalous – at least in 1860 – secret, a mysterious church fire and the mystery of Anne’s father, and why she looks just like Laura, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, so there is a lot to pack in before everyone, or at least the survivors, can live happily ever after.

Old Wilkie Collins knew how to keep the pot bubbling week after week and to her credit Miss Boyce does not let his many stranded plot stray too far before gathering it all in again..  

A big talented cast of 13 enter into what is a big story with plenty of enthusiasm and as the  plot thickens nicely, they pick up the pace as all the threads are drawn together.

Beaing such a big novel also poses problems for the designer, Alan Miller Bunford, who had to create two country houses, a lodging house, lunatic asylum, solicitor’s office, opera, London street and graveyard all without holding up the action, and apart from a couple of minor first night hiccoughs, his set proved remarkably flexible.

This was the opening night and I am sure Ian Dickens, who directed, and his wife, will tweak here and there to build on what is already a good, solid  foundation. It has taken 152 years but the wait has been worth it. To Saturday, June 23.

Roger Clarke 

This was the final play in the Ian Dickens' successful summer season at the Grand and Colin Baker announced that the summer season will return, with different plays, next year.

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