Review: 'The Woman in Black' Is a Grim and Ghastly Holiday Treat

Tuesday December 28, 2021
Originally published on December 22, 2021

Antony Eden and Robin Herford in "The Woman In Black"
Antony Eden and Robin Herford in "The Woman In Black"  

Sometimes it seems like every person you meet has an "It Really Happened To Me"-style ghost story that they're waiting for the most meager pretense to share.

But the premise of "The Woman In Black," the long-running West End "Christmas ghost story" production now playing at the Strand Theatre in San Francisco, is that someone who really saw a ghost would probably never want to talk about it, the same way people never want to talk about deeply disturbing things like tragedy, death, or regret.

"The Woman In Black" has played continuously in London for decades but is rarely staged in the US. Adapted from a 1983 book, the show portrays nearly the entire cast with just two actors, including Robin Herford, who directed the original "Woman In Black" production in the '80s and has toured with the show ever since.

Herford plays Kipps, an aged and dreadfully ordinary seeming man who, despite lacking enough imagination to even fill up a sock, insists that he has a true and terrible haunting story that he must finally get off his chest, for fear that it will drive him mad.

Antony Eden appears as the younger Kipps, an equally unimaginative but rambunctious and ambitious budding lawyer who travels to remote Eel Marsh House to deal with the estate of a recently dead client, only to discover that the house and surrounding town labor under a dark and terrible superstition.

There's not much original about "The Woman In Black." If you've heard one English ghost story in your life then you probably know all of these beats already, from the shiftless and untrusting townsfolk (also played by Herford) to the horrible family secret to the mysterious locked door in the old house that only opens when it wants to.

But in a way, that's part of the fun. This may be just like any other ghost story you've ever heard, but seeing it play out live on the Strand stage in front of you provokes the natural speculation: "But what if it was real?"

More than anything "The Woman In Black" is a triumph of atmosphere, from the gloomy lighting (by Anshuman Bhatia) that keeps the hauntings just barely visible to the centerpiece sound design (by Sebastian Frost, based on original work by Robert Mead), which feeds us vacant winds, creaking footsteps, and most of the show's big centerpiece scares.

A note on that: If you're the nervous sort who doesn't enjoy surprises, this may not be the show for you.

Don't get us wrong, it's not like we minded our souls briefly leaving our bodies when a thunderclap hit. But it sounds as if maybe they've cranked the sound system up to 11 despite the fact that the Strand is a mid-sized venue that could brook slightly less overwhelming audio.

Eden and Herford make a fine team, with the glib confidence of the former helping push the story forward when it drags a bit. As is traditional, the titular Woman In Black herself goes uncredited.

It's a shame this show has never seemed to catch on with American audiences to the degree it has in its native country, because you will probably not have more fun at the theater all year than at "The Woman In Black," particularly respectable, high-end theater like this.

It's a grim and ghastly treat for the holidays, but no less sweet for all that.

"The Woman In Black" plays through January 16 at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and showtimes go to ACT-SF.org.