The Woman in Black, a spooky Christmas transplant from the UK, is the second-longest running play on the West End (the top spot belongs to another little potboiler, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap). The play has run for over 30 years, and is being staged for the first time in the US by original director Robin Herford, courtesy of PW and Pemberley Productions. I’ll get down to brass tacks, because first and foremost you must be wondering “Is it scary?” The answer is, yes. In fact more so than any play I’ve seen that attempts such an exercise. It would seem that the Brits like their winter solstice served up with some well-earned jumps and screams.
An opening monologue drops us right into some English parlor, raging fire and all, where children eat spiced whatnots and tell each other ghost stories. It struck me, during a Sunday night performance at the Royal George Theatre, that this was entirely appropriate. While you might think this sort of story would have worked better, say, in October, there’s something warm and hearty about the whole affair; like listening to a candlelit radio play underneath a flannel blanket with a big mug of cocoa. After all, our most famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, is nothing if not a parable disguised as a ghost story, right?
There’s a clever little set up to this dense chiller: Arthur Kipps (Bradley Armacost), a nervous middle-aged man, has hired the services of an Actor (Adam Wesley Brown) to help him in the recitation of a thick manuscript. We learn that as a young solicitor, Kipps was called from London to Crythin Gifford, a remote, swampy swath on the coast, to settle the estate of a recently passed widow. Kipps is noticeably bothered by the story, and is desperate to rid himself of the trauma he’s carried around; he’s to stage a theatrical exorcism, if you will. Over a series of increasingly sophisticated rehearsals, adding lights and sounds as the tension of the story mounts, the Actor, who takes on the role of Kipps himself, leads us through the coastal towns and haunted manors of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name.
The writing here is excellent; lushly detailed and observant, adapter Stephen Mallatratt evokes the exteriors of train stations and marshes and paints scenes of extravagant action with a poetic flair. Both performances in this Chicago production are charming and effective; Adam Wesley Brown lifts the text with what feels like a born-performer’s sense of relish, while Bradley Armacost is pitch-perfect, playing double duty as elder Kipps and the smaller roles in his own story. And this remount is elegantly staged to boot–Director Robin Herford takes full advantage of the Royal George’s antique ambience, managing some spine-tingling reveals and gasp-worthy sleights of hand. I admit that there is some tedium in the opening movements; watching the Actor struggle to massage showmanship from the bumbling Mr. Kipps is only engaging for so long. But fortunately, a bit of patience pays off here; there are some insights into the co-opting of one’s own suffering for means of entertainment and musings on the nature of performance itself (some of it is quite funny, too). And once it gets rolling as a fully staged rehearsal (designers Michael Holt, Kevin Sleep, and Gareth Owen are working in top form here), The Woman in Black never loosens its grip.
Hammer Film Productions, the legendary, recently resurrected British horror movie house, produced an adaptation of The Woman in Black in 2012. It starred Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, and dove into the mythos of the titular spirit in a way that only cinema can afford. The result was gothic and chilling in that uniquely English way. It would become Hammer’s highest grossing film in the US, and spawned an enjoyable, albeit middling sequel. Interestingly, the film seems to have borrowed some artistic flair from its theatrical brethren; there’s a particular sound that haunts Kipps early in his investigation, and the image of what he discovers as the source of the sonic haunt is realized to chilling effect onstage, I’d say even better than what I saw onscreen. These delights are found throughout Herford’s The Woman in Black–a light off suddenly, a door slamming, the reveal of a staircase leading to some creepy landing–and in that way this production is surprisingly cinematic. And sitting in the theater has a one-up on watching celluloid—the very thing you are afraid of, be it fictional or not, is flesh and blood and could pop up right before you at any moment. The lasting impression is that you’ve just been toyed with and that the cast and crew had a wicked time turning the screw ever tighter; that is all in good, old fashioned, sturdy fun.
The Woman in Black runs at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, until February 17. Tickets are $49-$69.