Nick Owen in The Woman in Black at Festival Hall

Grade: A

Laughter echoed throughout the theater after The Actor roasted Arthur Kipps as he read his manuscript out loud. For the notorious horror story The Woman in Black to open with humor was a pleasant surprise. Perhaps it helped ease the audience into the horrors that awaited. 

The chilling tale of the titular Woman in Black began as a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, and was then adapted by Stephen Mallatratt into a popular British play in 1988, as well as a popular 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe. In the play, Arthur Kipps is a middle-aged lawyer who desperately wants to get a horrific account off his chest. Kipps hires a young performer, simply called ‘The Actor,’ to help him read his hefty manuscript out loud. 

Kipps, played by Peter Bradley, struggles to act out the manuscript initially, which in turn leads The Actor to make a few jabs at his acting skills. As the story progresses, Kipps’ skills improve. Unfortunately for the jumpy people in the audience, the humorous moments quickly turn to horror. 

As The Actor, played by Nick Owen, embodies a young Kipps, he experiences apparitions akin to ghost stories, including a visit to the home of a recently deceased widow. The house is deserted … almost. Kipps meets the phantom woman, and the narrative takes a turn. 

The Woman in Black is entirely performed by two actors who are taking on other characters as they read through a manuscript. Bradley, as Kipps, effortlessly transitioned from character to character, primarily through his use of different voices. Owen, as The Actor, was passionate, especially when he acted out a young Kipps’ horror story, which he did for most of the play. 

Almost every time Bradley described it being cold, the air felt much chillier. The sound design enhanced this feeling through gusts of wind combined with a noticeable temperature drop in the theater.

Since this is a horror story, it is no surprise The Woman in Black had its share of scares. The piercing shriek of the ghastly woman was so intense, audience members jumped in their seats every time she cried out. 

Because the play was so gripping, the nearly two-hour runtime — which included an intermission — flew. The lighting design was captivating, and it maintained a feeling of suspense, particularly through the dimly lit church scene and the glowing red shape of a window.

The Spoleto version of The Woman in Black was initially meant to take place outside, at the Charleston Visitor Center Bus Shed, and at times it seemed that the screams were the same volume as they might be if the play was still going to be held outside. Perhaps the loss of one sense — the ability to see clearly in the dark room — amplified the audio sensory experience. Regardless, it went on so long and so loudly in the second act, that it began to diminish the effectiveness of the show’s grip by not giving the audience a break between screams. The constant screams were tiring. 

Though it would have been interesting to see the play outside of a traditional theater space, it paid off having it inside at Festival Hall because of the bus terminal’s potentially noisy location. The theater was set up safely, in terms of social distance. The redesigned seating arrangement was apparent. There were only enough seats for each audience member, and all others were removed. 

Many audiences will no doubt compare the show to its cinematic sibling, but the play is a more sensory way to experience this horror story. Being part of a live audience instead of watching a horror film at home is more thrilling because the ability to have a controlled environment is taken away, and the memorable nature of live theater cannot be duplicated.

Emily Johnson is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.

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