By David Schultz
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
at The McKittrick Hotel, 530 West 27th Street
Through April 19th