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Woman in Black


Woman in Black


                               By David Schultz


Author Susan Hill’s haunted gothic novel has been adapted for the stage yet again. It is hard to fathom that this worn-out creaky ghost story has been running for 30 years, and gone on an unfathomable 14 tours worldwide. A British television rendition ran in the late 80’s, a film version was also released many years later. Adapted by writer Stephen Mallatratt in 1989, this wan ghost tale has yet to end its run in London. It has the distinction of being the second-longest running play running on the boards, the longest of course being the old warhorse Mousetrap.


The Woman in Black, A Ghost Play in a Pub does have the major advantage of being performed in the creepy and atmospheric real-life hotel turned theatrical space of the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea. Within its hollowed hallways that other well-known little play Sleep No More, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth is ongoing at this venue on a different floor.  


This site-specific theatrical environment takes place in a genuine looking English pub in the hotel’s hidden pub, The Club Car, with real liquid libations for sale. The imbibing of as much alcoholic beverages as you can drink will presumably make one more susceptible to its ghostly charms. I sadly did not partake of any drinks and attended the performance completely sober. In retrospect I should have tanked up to keep up with the audience who seemed to be completely under its shivery spell.


The slow…very slow unraveling of plot, seems intriguing at least at the outset. A solicitor Arthur Kipps (David Acton) a subtle tip of the hat to a book by H.G. Wells natch, tells his tragic tale of his business dealings to Eel Marsh House, he has been chosen to look through and research legal documents and put the affairs of its mysterious recently deceased owner Alice Drablow,  spoken of in hushed tones by the fearful citizens of the town. In this Metatheatrical treatise he has requested the help of an actor (Ben Porter) to reenact the story in full detail. The hesitant and unassuming actor takes charge finally gaining his chops in performing the tale at hand, while Kipps in a seamless transition plays all of the various parts that are performed in the evening. The Woman in Black is the third character (unnamed in the Playbill).



The actor becomes the focus and the main storyteller of the evening. The actual set-up of the play does bode well initially for the intended spooks and ghostly apparition’s and clanks in the night. The overly convoluted tale spirals onward with VERY LOUD spooky sounds that emanate from all around the audience. Sound designer Sebastian Frost makes the joint shake. Make sure to take your asthma inhaler with you, since stage designer Michael Holt bathes the small intimate stage with gag inducing fog effects. Lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia abruptly clamps down with black out scenes that attempt to ratchet up the fear of the dark that we had as tiny tots.  


The small stage…nothing more than a few chairs and a rusty trunk is on view for most of the evening. The two actors onstage are the driving force of the play. One’s imagination fills in the visual gaps as the story evolves. The thinly veiled scrim later on in the final few minutes of the play reveals a haunted child’s bedroom with creepy toys and a rocking chair that seems to move on its own accord. And yes… the Woman in Black does make a few shocking appearances in the evening. But in my estimation, she looked like a woman desperately in need of a decent hairstylist and a makeover, since her garish look reminded me of Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”. The story would be better served if it were done as a radio play…. ala The Inner Sanctum from the 1940’s. The spooks and mild tepid scares of this production brought to mind the campy 1960’s films of Roger Corman. The late great Vincent Price relished his role in the various Edgar Allen Poe films, these derivative over the top versions directed by Corman with a heavy hand that moved like molasses were blissful fun, with Jack-in-the-Box scares that made one laugh and shriek. 




The current version that is on display is initially worthwhile, but as the turgid evening winds down the heavy-handed tale reaches its inevitable climax. The funny thing is this…. everyone around me was whopping it up, gasping and shrieking at the ghostly apparition’s shocking appearance. The design team has worked in overdrive mode with the blackout scenes scattered throughout and the cough inducing fog effects. Subtle it isn’t….by far. But this steam engine of shock effect roller-coaster meta-Mondo-horror-ghostly over-the-top creep-a-thon storytelling has it seems struck a chord with audiences for decades. 


Grab your rickety wooden chair, sidle up to the bar, get a drink, get a few…maybe then you can get spooked silly. Other options can occur as well while watching the show…. like perhaps sleep. Or better yet, Sleep No More is playing in the same building, so at least you can wander the halls on your own accord with that famous Bard play, seeking your own private nightmarish apparition.       



 Playing at The McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street

Extended Through April 19th