There was an old woman all skin and bones… Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh…
So began my favorite song in music class throughout elementary school. The song ends with a loud “Boo!” meant to scare anyone listening, and I remember jumping and shrieking on many occasions (and then bursting into a fit of giggles). The Woman in Black: A Ghost Play in a Pub at the McKittrick Hotel attempts to achieve what Mrs. Bankston did so well every October — inspire ample jumps and screams — and for the most part, it succeeds.
Based on the 1983 gothic novel of the same name by Susan Hill and staged in the Club Car space meant to be reminiscent of the pub where the show was first performed nearly 30 years ago in London, The Woman in Black opens with aging lawyer Arthur Kipps (David Acton) meeting with a thespian (Ben Porter) who’s agreed to help him share a story with his family. Of course, the thespian isn’t about to allow Arthur to stand before his loved ones for five hours and read them page after page describing his experience as a young man visiting a secluded manor in northern England to handle the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs. Alice Drablow. Porter’s thespian instead helps Kipps turn the story into a play and takes on the role of the young Kipps himself, thus creating a show-within-a-show.
It soon becomes quite clear that Eel Marsh House, which is unreachable from the main land during high tide, has some strange quirks: a mysterious door locked from the inside, the sound of a rocking chair creaking, and the occasional sighting of an eerie woman, dressed in black. Young Kipps soon learns that the task at hand is a big one, and he’s forced to remain in town — and away from his fiancée, Stella — for longer than he’d anticipated. But the more time he spent at the house, the more he began to understand why the townsfolk stayed away.
When the first jump-scare happens (the mysterious locked door swings open!), the audience reacted much as I did in music class way back when. And like that, they began to anticipate and delight in more, similar moments throughout the show, down to its final seconds.
Acton and Porter perform an impressive two-hander, with Acton taking on countless characters throughout (and Porter sticking to the thespian and young Kipps). Their comfort and trust is evident as they weave Kipps’ tale and move around the sparse stage and through the unique space.
Original director Robin Herford is responsible for the direction at the McKittrick, which is setting the mood and further honoring Stephen Mallatratt’s original staging — after two years in a pub in Scarborough, England, it moved to the London’s West End, where it remains — by offering traditional British pub food and draft ales. (And if the title sounds familiar, it’s because Daniel Radcliffe also took on the role of young Kipps in the 2012 film adaptation of Hill’s novel.)
Horror stories may not be a genre one typically expects to see onstage — but then again, since when has the McKittrick, home of Sleep No More, produced anything “typical”? B+