Saturday 11 January 2020

Theatre Review: The Woman in Black, McKittirick Hotel, New York City

I first read Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) as a child when I came across the book in my local library. I’d recently “discovered” Victorian literature and had been reading lots of Brontë and Dickens. The cover first attracted me (I was already drawn to a Gothic aesthetic!) and, funny enough for someone who would go on to become a historical novelist, I was little disappointed when I realised this wasn’t a “real” nineteenth-century novel but a work from the previous decade.

Since then, I’ve experienced the story several times in different media. There was a touring production of the popular stage adaptation, which I attended at Belfast Opera House with giggling teenage classmates. We screamed at the jump scares and I marvelled at the stage effects (I’d never seen a Broadway or West End show before and loved the lighting and use of translucent curtains). When I was at university, I saw the 2012 film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. A friend’s girlfriend covered her eyes for most of the movie and deemed it a horror film.

Each time, varied as these experiences were, my response has been the same. The Woman in Black has more style than substance. It’s Victoriana for those who don’t know much about the Victorians. But it’s all in good fun and can be visually compelling—just as the novel’s cover was to me many years ago.

This week I attended another production of the stage play, this time at the McKittirick Hotel in Manhattan. The McKittirick isn’t a real hotel but a performance space with drinking and dining venues. It’s also home to Sleep No More, the most popular immersive theatre experience in the city. I was excited to see what they would do with The Woman in Black.

What I didn’t expect was that, while Brits revel in how Victorian The Woman in Black is (from creepy music boxes, to face-obscuring fashions to ponies and traps), Americans really respond to the story’s Britishness. Prior to the show, attendees can dine in booths designed to resemble those of an English pub. We ate pies and drank ale. There was even HP Sauce on the table, which seemed pretty un-Victorian, until I read up on it and realised that the brand dates from 1895. The performance space also includes a bar, hence the billing of this The Woman in Black as a “ghost play in a pub.”

Slightly disappointingly, these pre-show bells and whistles, reminiscent of the pie dinner I enjoyed prior to the Barrow Street Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago, were the most innovative part of the production. Otherwise the play will be familiar to those who’ve seen it at other venues, despite the McKittirick’s fabled reputation.

There are only three actors (and one is the unspeaking ghost). Some props and even a dog are make-believe, with the script rhapsodising on the power of audiences’ imaginations. It’s all very meta and the Gothic tropes (empty rocking chairs, abandoned toys, descending mist) are so hackneyed they verge on cliché.

I ended the night with the same feeling The Woman in Black has always left me with—disappointment that I didn’t enjoy it more, given my love of Victorian Gothic, but also some satisfaction that the period of literature I’m most fascinated by continues to have such mass appeal. There’s something about the preoccupations, fashions, and stories of the nineteenth century that audiences keep coming back to—and that’s great news for a historical novelist like me.

If you’re looking for a fun night out and like your pie, consider checking out the production at the McKittirick. But at $100+ for the whole experience, I’d caution against breaking the bank to attend.

What NYC-based theatre production would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

If you want to learn more about my debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress, check out my website here. Historical novelist Jeanne Mackin writes, Anyone who has ever thrilled to a Brontë novel needs to read this glorious historical novel about the Brontë sisters and their brother, Branwell, and his affair with the outrageous, scandalous woman who broke all conventions.”

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