I’ve experienced my share of Halloween-themed theater (including blindfolded ones). But what I rarely experienced was a room where spectators were screaming in fear in all directions. And they weren’t screaming at anything typically scary, like gory scenes, murders, or anything macabre. Instead, the shine of The woman in black is its use of old-school creepy jumps and an immersive soundscape to make audiences scream and jump in their seats.
The woman in black is based on Susan Hill’s gothic horror novel of the same name. It follows an accountant, Arthur Kipps, hired to review the accounts of the late Alice Drablow. He travels to Mrs. Drablow’s country mansion to discover, like all great ghost stories, disturbing noises and a mysterious woman in black with a skeletal face. The woman in black has all the tropes of gothic horror: a house in the middle of formidable countryside, a room with a locked door containing a mysterious secret, and a woman gone mad haunting the house. And as Kipps explores the house, as a member of the public, there is an urge to shout, “Don’t open the door!” horror movie style.
Speaking of movies, The woman in black has been adapted for the screen several times, including a 2012 adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version premiered in 1987 (and is currently the second longest running West End production). The stage version is notable for using only three actors and the bare minimum of props to create an air of tension and dread. And Mallatratt also added a framing device: in his version, Kipps (played by David Acton) hired an actor (Ben Porter) to help him recreate the events of The woman in black.
It’s unclear why Kipps would want to relive his trauma in such a visceral way. But the framing device speaks in favor of the show as a play: there’s an added element of fear in the game version that isn’t present in the book or movies that will chill your blood.
Acton and Porter both reprise their West End roles. Porter plays the actor who plays young Kipps, which might sound complicated, but he’s able to transition between his two roles gracefully. He also has a relatable quality: when he gets scared, so does the audience. Acton plays the older Kipps and other characters in the story, and he transitions well into each of them thanks to a change of coat and some great accent work.
Sebastian Frost’s sound design also deserves a special mention for its ability to transport the audience to the various locations, while making them jump at the most unexpected moments – these are sound effects you really feel in your bones.
The third actor, who plays the eponymous Woman in Black, is uncredited and does not greet the rest of the cast. This is understandable since the play wants to give the audience the impression that they too have seen a ghost. But given that most of the work of scaring the audience falls on this actor’s shoulders, and she’s more than succeeded judging by the screams of the audience around me, she should at least get some credit in poster. And if the show doesn’t want to spoil the surprise, wait for the audience to go home and then send them an electronic program.
This omission is particularly glaring given that the show is very male-dominated: the cast, director, and most of the crew are male. Considering the story is about a female ghost and falls into the outdated crazy woman trope, some clear female energy would have been welcome to round out the narrative and complicate it slightly, and perhaps make it more universal. It’s 2021 after all; we are all vengeful, angry ghosts after being trapped in our own homes last year.
Yet, like a good old-fashioned ghost story, The woman in black manages to scare the audience enough. When I left the theater, stepping back into the cold New York fall air, I couldn’t help but turn around to make sure no ghosts were following me home. .
The Woman in Black runs at the McKittrick Hotel through January 30, 2022. Get tickets for The Woman in Black at New York Theater Guide.
Photo credit: David Acton and Ben Porter in The Woman in Black. (Photo by Jenny Anderson)