Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Happy(ish) families: Chris Waters as Sir Percy (left) Dale Roberts as Gilmore, Joe Young as Louis, Rod Bissett as Hartwright, Brian Lycett as Frederick Fairlie, Rebecca Holmes-Mears as Marion and Zo Fryer as Laura

The Woman in White

The Grange Playhouse


Wilkie Collin’s fifth novel is widely regarded as his best, a tale of love, deception, greed and, for its time, a condemnation of the unequal position of married women, indeed women in general, which puts it firmly in to Victorian dastardly melodrama territory.

The simple fact was that in 1859-60 when the novel first appeared, serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine All Year Round, a married women had no control over her own money and women could be incarcerated in lunatic asylums if they became an embarrassment or inconvenience to father’s or husbands.

And all that is given full rein in this 2005 adaptation by Constance Cox which takes the Grange back 160 years or so as a poor art teacher, Walter Hartright, is employed by wealthy landowner Frederick Fairlie to school his two orphaned nieces Laura Fairlie, a heiress and wealthy orphan, and her older half sister, Marion Halcombe, poor and living on charity.

Rod Bissett gives us an eager to please Hartwright, with a strong sense of justice and moral duty, but a bit short in the wealth stakes when it comes to wooing heiresses with £80,000 in the bank – a dilemma which plays out later in the plot.

He sets the hare running so to speak when he encounters a young woman dressed all in white who asks for his help on the road to London as he is on his way to the Fairlie estate in Cumberland, he finds her a cab and soon after discovers she has escaped from a lunatic asylum . . . He is quite taken aback when he first meets Laura who bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman in white.


Raw Lawrence's scheming Count Fosco hovering in the background as Sir Percy castigates housekeeper Mrs Vesey played by Jill Simkin as Laura and Marion come to terms with the life that has landed on them

So, a poor art teacher, escaped patient from the asylum, two sisters at opposite ends of the financial scale and a rich landowner puts us in social awareness mode from the off. There is Marion, solid dependable Marion played by Rebecca Holmes-Mears with an assured air. Her father was never rich and died young leaving her mother to marry into the rich Fairlie land owning family, and when husband No 2 went off to his maker, dear old Uncle Fred took in both nieces, rich and poor.

Fred is . . . well strange seems an understatement. He travels by wheelchair pushed by loyal servant Louis - a last minute replacement, with just three rehearsals, incidentally, by director’s husband and set builder Joe Young, not that you would know it as he never put a foot, or antiseptic spray, wrong.

But back to Fred, keep your distance, please Fred, played in a cloud of sanitising spray with constant fear of germs by Brian Lycett. Fred is a hypochondriac’s hypochondriac suffering from more conditions than are known by medical science and almost paralysed by the fear of suffering diseases both identified and yet to be invented. 

Then there is Laura, a bit naïve but ever so pretty in the shape of Zo Fryer, whose father was the wealthy one. She has £80,000 to her name already and inherits the Fairlie estate when one of Fred’s catalogue of diseases or life threatening conditions finally gets him.

All of which makes her an attractive bride for Sir Percival Glyde, played with all the smooth air of a seasoned cad by Chris Waters.

Laura’s father and Sir Percy’s families were friends, and it was his dying wish his daughter and their son would marry, mind you he didn’t know the truth about Sir Percy and his family, and I ain’t going to tell you that bit of tasty gossip, not after it took the best part of three hours for me to find out.

Sir Percy is a somewhat Jekyll and Hyde character more than twice the age of Laura and you suspect from the off that neither love nor lust were the driving forces in this courtship and subsequent marriage when the smooth aristocrat turns into the rough and nasty autocrat.

To add to the mix we then have Count Fosco, a remarkably smarmy Italian counta ifa you knowa what Ia meana, played rather tongue in cheek by Ray Lawrence, which makes his flashes of real anger far more effective. He is trailed by his almost silent, submissive wife, the countess played by Amanda Glover.


Laura and sister Marion appealing to Mr Gilmore to find a way out of the mess they are in

Fussing around them all is the housekeeper Mrs Vesey, played in a no nonsense, subservient way - because that’s part of the job - by Jill Simkin, whose facial expressions speak volumes and whose explosion in the second act comes like a thunderbolt.

Adding a legal opinion we have Dale Roberts as the no nonsense solicitor Mr Gilmore, doing his best to protect the interests of Laura, and then there is the key to the whole story, Mrs Catherick, an in yer face, you don’t frighten me, keeper of the secret that could solve all the problems.

She is played by Sam Allan, who had to remember all her lines as she was also the prompt, not that she was ever needed in this fine production.

Remember the woman in white? Well supposedly that is Mrs Catherick’s daughter Anne, who as our art teacher had spotted, bears a remarkable resemblance to Laura, which is not surprising as she is played by Miss Fryer again in an outstanding dual role – making each a different character.

Throw in subterfuge, hidden notes and messages, the close friendship of Sir Percy and Fosco being revealed as a complete sham, as is Sir Percy’s actual . . . never mind, you need to see it, it’s complicated.

Then there is the return of art teacher Walter, who only left because he fell in love with Laura and returns as her would be champion, arriving in time to discover body swapping, to join a hunt for a secret that could have been lost in the grave, take part in a one sided sword fight and witness, a fatal fire in the church vestry destroying both evidence and part of the problem – a problem who can’t open the vestry door to get out.

It all means we are in for a finale in a frantic final few minutes tying up enough loose ends to keep a who troop of boy scouts happy for hours.

It is a well acted and well paced piece, with director Lynne Young keeping everything moving along nicely on a lovely period set designed by Young with lighting from Stan Vigurs, Colin Mears and Christina Peak important in this piece with constant opening and closing curtains on the French windows, lights on and off and lighting changes all the time.

If there is a fault it is not with the cast, direction or production which could hardly be faulted, but the play itself. It shows the novel’s origins as a serial running nine months in a weekly magazine with a regular need for cliff hangers some of which remain in the play’s story line adding to the fact that at two hours 50 minutes it could perhaps have been written to be half an hour shorter.

That being said it is an entertaining and interesting play, which was based on an actual case, and, of all the possibilities it opens up as the final curtain approaches, it all comes down to a twist you won’t ever guess - unless you are an expert in mid 19th century inheritance and marital law that is. The woman in white will be hiding in the shadows around the Grange to  23-03-24.

Roger Clarke


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