More than thirty years ago in a small theatre in Scarborough, England, an artistic director by the name of Robin Herford asked his resident playwright, Stephen Mallatratt to adapt Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black to the stage. To say that the result was a roaring success is not only an understatement, but grammatically inaccurate. The Woman in Black continues to be a roaring success as the second longest running production in London’s West End, and, as Herford takes it on its first American tour, at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
It is easy, as one takes their seat before the production begins, to question how the sparsely furnished, well-lit stage might house a horror story. However, the answer quickly follows as the masterful production unfolds. Mallatratt’s script showcases the true potential of live-theatre to captivate an audience and bring them far away from their safe, cosy, chairs. With only two characters, Arthur Kipps (Bradley Amacost), a haunted man trying to put traumatic memories to rest by at last by telling of his painful experience as a young solicitor, and the unnamed actor he has hired to coach him (Adam Wesley Brown), The Woman in Black follows Kipp’s account of his youthful journey to the remote village of Crythin Gifford. The narrative structure takes on a delightful, russian-doll-esque aspect as it embarks on a metaphysical commentary on theatre. The actor, comically frustrated with Kipp’s lack of acting prowess, decides that he will play the part of young Kipp, while Kipp himself will play the supporting characters as the two work through a rehearsal of the show Kipp hopes to put on for his family.
The minuscule cast list allows the phenomenal range of both Armacost and Brown to shine through. Although you find yourself laughing at the actor’s criticism of Kipp’s complete ineptitude, enthusiastically explaining to his client the role of sound effects and lighting, and though you laugh again as Kipp poorly attempts to work through the script, the second Kipp finds his footing and the two slip into their story, suspension of disbelief becomes the only option. Kevin Sleep and Gareth Owen are, respectively, the lighting and sound designers for this production, and the only possible criticism of the jump-scares their work produces is that they perhaps do their jobs too well. More than once a line or two was swallowed by the audience’s nervous tittering in the aftermath of unconscious shrieks.
The Woman in Black is an old-fashioned ghost story, neither gory nor overly original, through the frightening effects of loud noises, a dark theatre, smoke, and fantastic acting may not be suitable for very young, or very nervous, audiences. This is the sort of show to which you should definitely bring a friend, both to share the fantastic experience with, and to ensure you have someone’s hand to hold and to listen to you rant (hopefully during intermission) about why one should not spend the night in a haunted house. If you happen not know why spectral sleepovers are a bad idea, then all the more reason to get tickets. The Woman In Black is sure to fill in that particular gap in your education.
The Woman In Black adapted from Susan Hill’s novel of the same name by Stephen Mallatrat. Directed by Robin Herford. Seattle Repertory Theatre through March 24. 155 Mercer St, Seattle, WA 98109. Tickets and more info here.