Ooh, this is a spooky, shivery wintry treat.
True horror — as opposed to horror-comedy or some kind of gothic romance — is rarely attempted and even more rarely achieved in a theatrical setting. But armed with little more than a couple of actors and a well-worn bag of lights-and-sound tricks, The Woman in Black, going on now until December 22 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, pulls it right the hell off. It might be the most delightfully scary play I’ve ever seen.
This West End staple, directed by Robin Herford and adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a novel by Susan Hill, tells the story of Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale), a man of late middle age who has hired an Actor (Daniel Easton) some years his junior and rented out an empty theatre to exorcise a tale of the supernatural that has literally haunted him for decades. Once upon a time, it seems, a young Mr. Kipps, working as a lawyer, made a trip to an old, secluded manor house where he encountered what could only be explained as a ghost.
The Actor takes the role of Kipps in the past, while Kipps, in a clever reversal, plays those he encountered along the way in his task of serving as executor of a mysterious old woman’s will. Both performances are death by a thousand cuts: Neither one gets a big, killer scene, but before you know it, you’re bleeding in your seat.
Once it gets going, the story (much like Michael Holt’s exposed-brick set) is a deceptively simple affair. In truth, it racks up a lot of clichés, none of which you’ll mind. There are menacing mists on the salt marshes! Things that go bump in the night! “You’re whistling in the dark,” warns one of the locals. Get out! Get out while you can!
And it was so much fun. Fans of Poe, Brontë, and smoke machines may be the target audience, but Black looks good on everyone.
What you’re really here for is the atmosphere, and it is tight as a submarine hatch. Easton and Goodale conspire with sound designer Sebastian Frost and lights from Kevin Sleep to ratchet Woman in Black’s tension to levels that can only be described as rhapsodic; you couldn’t just cut it with a knife, you could feast on it for days.
For two players, the show nevertheless offers a full circus of horrors, and gets the stereotypical responses to one, too. Women screamed. Strong men trembled. Both laughed off the jump scares, but only after we jumped.
You’ll leave with a giant grin on your face.