Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Woman in Black
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Gently Down the Stream

Robin Herford and Anthony Eden
Photo by Kasey L. Ross
Expectations can be tricky things. It's why I generally like to know as little about a show before seeing it, in order to help me leave my preconceptions at the door and let the creators tell me their story. Though I knew very little about The Woman in Black before attending the opening Friday night at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater, I did know it's a ghost story that's been playing in London since 1989. In the adaptor's notes (which I read after seeing the play), playwright Stephen Mallatratt states that "The intent of the show is to frighten—so if it doesn't, it's nothing."

So it was with some expectation (hope?) of being frightened that I took my seat. The minimal set—a tattered dark-grey scrim upstage, a single chair, a large lidded wicker basket, a few nesting buckets—felt appropriately shopworn, even a little eerie. The eeriness is further increased when an older, somewhat gaunt gentleman in a dark suit and trilby hat enters, carrying an attaché from which he pulls a black, leather-bound notebook. He stands center stage, opens the book and begins, somewhat hesitantly, to read: "It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve..." His character is identified as Actor, but he most clearly is not, and is soon interrupted by a booming voice from inside the house. The voice comes from an actual actor, whom this gentleman has hired to help tell a story from when he was a young man, a tale he believes must be told. The actor is identified in the program as Kipps, which seems odd, as the Actor introduces himself as Arthur Kipps, and the actor playing Kipps is an actor (both in the real world and the world of the play). With persistence and good humor, Kipps expresses a fervent desire to help the Actor to more effectively tell the tale of what Arthur Kipps experienced some three decades prior, which will be accomplished by Kipps playing Kipps as a young man, and the Actor (actually Arthur Kipps) being asked to play all the other characters in his story.

The tension builds nicely for the first 20 minutes or so, as Kipps (an energetic Anthony Eden) works to draw the story out of the Actor (a brilliant Robin Herford, who also directed this production) and convince him that, if he wants to keep his intended audience enthralled, it "must be offered in a form that is remotely palatable," no matter how horrible its subject matter. And by the end of the story we will learn that its subject matter is quite horrible indeed, being a gothic tale of tragic events.

The adaptor's notes also state that "The fear is not on a visual or visceral level, but an imaginative one." Herford has taken this to heart, for he has created tension not through images of horror, but by hiding the threat, revealing it to us only in brief flashes, leaving it to us to imagine what terrors Arthur Kipps experienced as a young solicitor attending to the estate of an old woman who had lived in a creepy house on the edge of a foggy marsh.

All this begs the question—was I frightened? No, I was not. Startled? Yes, several times, but I never felt a quickening of the pulse, or the cold dread of knowing something awful was about to happen but not knowing what or when. Yet, despite my hopes of experiencing a good scare, I was nonetheless enraptured by the outstanding performances of both Herford and Eden. The show's program notes that Herford commissioned and directed the first adaptation of The Woman in Black, has directed multiple stagings of the show, and directs every new cast of the show in its seemingly permanent home of London's Fortune Theatre. It's no wonder Herford seemed almost preternaturally at ease with the play—even when his character is anything but at ease. From his initial moments as a reluctant thespian to the terrors of recalling the horror the character experienced first hand at Eel Marsh House, Herford is a joy to watch. There is a moment early on when, simply by pushing his reading glasses down to the tip of his nose, the Actor discovers the voice of the character he is attempting to inhabit at that moment. I doubt you will find a more nuanced and precise performance on any stage anywhere.

Anthony Eden is equally assured, but in a very different way. I imagine it might—counter-intuitively—be a challenge for an actor to portray an actor. He must not only be the actor-ly version of himself, as he plays an actor hired to train a novice to act, he then has to take on the role of an actor playing an actor playing yet another role. But Eden pulls it all off with an easy physicality and the performance of tiny details that add up to something far greater than the sum of those details. I'm at a loss as to how can it be compelling to watch a man scan papers, crumple them one by one, and toss them aside, but Eden somehow makes it so.

I may not have been frightened by The Woman in Black, as I expected to be, but I was captivated by the performances of two consummate theatre professionals.

The Woman in Black runs through January 16, 2021, at American Conservatory Theater, Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $35-$85. For tickets and information, please visit