Mini-review – Dracula (the ballet) – Mark Bruce Company at Arts Depot

November 26, 2014 by

I haven’t been reviewing ballet much lately, but I also haven’t been making treks to the great depths of Southern Yorkshire to go see productions of shows I’m especially interested in. Well, this isn’t entirely true: I made it to Whitby Abbey to see the charming Dracula 5696 put on, but that wasn’t the reason I was in Whitby. No, I made to to the dark wild north – of Finchley – because I was dying to see (get it?) Dracula, the ballet production by the Mark Bruce company. By the time I navigated the 15 minute walk from the Tube station (and the 1:10 tube journey from Paddingon) I was feeling dispirited. Could it possibly worth it? I mean, if this was really good, it would be at Sadler’s Wells, right?

As it turns out, this show was well worth the journey (in part because the 2:00 running time meant I got home around 11 rather than midnight as I had feared). The show was surprising to me in so many ways, from the music to the use of masks/puppets to the quite unexpected presence of the human voice is what so frequently is a mime show. The set was fairly static – a hint of a house with windows, a wrought iron gate – but in front we had tombstones, tables, beds, endlessly remaking the stage in front of us into what we needed for the scene. Our fairly constant companions for our voyage from Whitby to Transylvania and back were the three seductive Brides of Dracula, who were especially funny when they did a turn as Lucy’s maids (giving us big grins with pointy teeth in case we’d forgotten where we’d seen them before).

The production did a very nice job of creating a dark atmosphere, starting with the opening scene – Dracula taking a baby from a pack of wolves and handing it to his female minions – and carrying through to the heartbreak of the boat scene, where the sailors (and captain) one by one die on the stage. My favorite bit, though, was the hectic ride from the village to Castle Dracula, with puppet headed horse women (the brides again, I’m pretty sure) making a mad dash while the wolves surrounded and snapped at them. It was a great bit of dance theater and probably had a better sense of tension than any movie version I’ve seen of this.

And while spooky much of this was, there were also some strong moments of humor – Dracula’s soft shoe to a twenties (?) song about a bear, complete with top hat and a cane, as well as the scene where Lucy has three men propose to her in short order – to keep thing from becoming morbid or maudlin. But then you had lots of sexiness – Dracula winning over Lucy, then quite soon after breaking Mina’s spirit – mixed with intensely visceral, luscious dancing that, well, made me want to show my next. Overall, I’d say it was a very successful production, and while I’m sorry it wasn’t playing in central London, I’m very happy that so many people have had a chance to see this highly entertaining show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 25th, 2014. It closes tonight.)

Review – Pomona – Orange Tree Theater

November 23, 2014 by

Let’s be honest: I got interested in seeing Pomona at the Orange Tree Theater not because it’s a new play, but because in the poster there was someone dressed with a Cthulu mask on. I’ve been into Lovecraftian stuff since I was in college, and I’ve gotten more into it since Charles Stross integrated the mythos into his Laundry books (so much so I made my own knock off of it). Then when I found out it was also about role playing games (RPGs to the initiated, Dungeons and Dragons to the rest), I was feeling very strongly a trip to the distant wilds of Richmond was called for – but Stewart Pringle’s enthusiastic blurblings were what tipped me over into finding the most immediately open slot on my calendar and booking tickets. Yes, yes, I want to support the production of new works, but it does take something really special to support it in a location that can mean I spend the next day at work being totally exhausted.

Backstory out of the way, I’m going to go for an experiential rather than a narrative based review …

In the darkness, you are suddenly faced with two people: a man, explaining the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark; and a woman, listening to him, while handing large, twenty sided dice to a Cthulu-headed figure. The woman is looking for her sister, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Why is he telling her a story everyone must know? Why is he dressed in white underwear? Who has convinced her to come to him for help? Are they real? Is he going to hurt her? Is this actually a game?

The lights flash, chaos descends. A red haired woman briefly appears, trying to rip off the gag and wrist cuffs binding her. Two men, friends apparently, hurt each other terribly to save themselves from a worse fate. While the vignettes take place in the square pit in the middle of the theater, other people lurk on the edges. There is the feeling that everything that happens is being watched. A woman making a desperate phone call to tell someone (her sister?) to lock the doors and stay inside add to this feeling. Is she real? Is she part of a story someone else is telling? One person after another is frightened of a really horrible death that they believe to be unavoidable. And suddenly, like a scene from the Shining, the set is covered with buckets of blood that all trickle away down the drain in the middle. My God, what is going on?

The narrative bits seem to stretch out and more richly developed characters bob up like corpses in a river. One of the interactions is about Keaton, an autistic seeming young woman (Sarah Middleton), playing an RPG with Charlie (Sam Swann), who earlier had a hallucinatory scene where he explained his desire to mark an entire city with his bodily fluids. Why do he and the other security guard he works with think there is something strange going on where they are? Is it all a backstory build up for Charlie’s RPG? Is it somehow real?

As I was taken on this flickering, constantly shifting narrative, with sinister female criminals, worried sisters, a young woman running around a maze, big city prostitutes, and the constant miasma of evil, I gave up on trying to decide what was supposed to be real within the context of the play and just let the storylines wash over me and form the connections they wanted to form. I was impressed by how buried in their parts the actors were – I found myself wanting to reach out and comfort the red haired woman (Rebecca Humphries) when she was being particularly terrorized, yet I also found her cold blooded rage in a proximate scene had me frightened about what would happen next. I never guessed who the ultimate villain would be, or what the terror that lurks beneath would wind up being – in some ways it was very much modern Grand Guignol but with less blood – because you don’t need lots of blood to destroy people. You just need to control them. Pomonoa wonderfully created the atmosphere of terror standing just behind you: because ultimately, the most frightening thing out there isn’t some alien creature: it’s other people.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. It continues through December 13th.)

Review – Assassins – Menier Chocolate Factory

November 22, 2014 by

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to the Marvellous Mighty Menier for this grand revival of the unloved, the unkind …. Assassins! Walk through the terrifying fanged clown mouth and into the hall of frights … the cream skimmed from America’s murderous society, the land where the gun is king and the conspiracies run rich and thick. See the freakshow of death dealers! Witness the logic of a culture where people who think a death will improve the world inexorably become part of a chain of never ending violence! See the Master oF Ceremonies bravely supply himself for target practice, then join in the fun as the killers train their guns on you! You’ll clap from the sidelines as Squeaky Fromme (Carly Bawden) explains her devotion to Charlie Manson, then gets in a fight with John Hinkley (Harry Morrison) over who has a better relationship with their idol. You’ll flinch away from the gun John Wilkes Booth pulls on a friend, then cheer as he comes back to life – like the rest of the nutjobs populating this room. Failed crashed airplanes? Wanna be French ambassadors? The level of delusion is sky high, creating a magic that’s only broken by the hashed together po-Southern accent of Sara Jane Moore (Catherine Tate). It’s all just a warm up for … the grandest killer of all, the one who changed the course of American history, Mr Lee Harvey Oswald (Jamie Parker), whose sudden appearance in the final minutes of the show is the Last Great Reveal, the man about whom so much has been written but whose logic is still a mystery.

But wait! Don’t turn away! Don’t say no to the joyous dark sideshow just because it trivializes (or even laughs at) the deaths these people dealt to their victims! It’s such a very pretty circus, from the fine singing to the giant clown’s head and bumper car littering the stage and even to the shiny costumes. You’re looking at reality, folks, and you know damn well that you wanted to see ugly and you wanted to be a little scared. So now you’re complaining at me because it was actually offensive and maybe you were actually frightened? Well, all I can say people, is look in the mirror, ’cause there ain’t no sideshow less’n there are ticket buying folks saying they are willing to hand over their hard earned cash to see it. And you got in line, you bought your popcorn, you wanted to be there, so maybe if you’re feeling a little bit upset it’s actually because you just found out something about yourself, something about what you like, and maybe it’s a little bit nasty. But don’t try to get all high and mighty with me. I say you know what you came for and you damn well got your money’s worth. As for me, well, when I looked around and saw all of your pale and tremulous faces looking up a barrel at impending annihilation, I know I got mine.

(This review is for the first performance of this production, which took place on Friday, November 21st, 2014.)

Mini-preview – Mimetic Festival – The Vaults (Waterloo)

November 19, 2014 by

On Monday night I was invited to a preview for the Mimetic Festival at The Vaults, the funky space on the train station side of the Waterloo graffiti tunnel. The event itself is a two week long festival of cabaret, puppetry, comedy, short plays, and what I’ll lump together as physical theater – more than I could do justice in a single review – as well as some workshops and scratch performances. The evening promised about eight performances, which I initially thought would go for the full length advertised in the program – but in fact most of them were about five to ten minutes, so easily within the attention span of a bunch of prosecco doused critics. If this sounds like you, this might be a really good festival for you to experience – none of the shows seem to be over an hour and the start times range from 18:00 to 22:00 – in one night you could easily fit in three shows. Mmm, tapas theater watching!

The night, like many a meal, was a mix of the good and the yawny with a bit of mediocre. Our drag queen mistress of ceremonies, Pi the Mime aka Seren Adieu, was lovely out of her whiteface and did a good job of keeping things moving while being saucy and keeping us involved. The first up was a bit from Familia de la Noche’s “The Greatest Liar in All the World,” which seemed a chaotic jumble that might have worked in the context of the longer piece it was meant to encapsulate (a sequel to Pinocchio) but which contained much of what I hate about both clowns and dancy performy art stuff all jammed together in an incoherent lump. Man. I could not make the Pinocchio connection at all even though I really wanted to. (November 18-22, 20:00)

More promising was the extremely bizarre Marion Deprez is Gorgeous. Now in a world where women are pretty uniformly taught to disparage themselves, it was interesting to see a performer appear on stage whose schtick was entirely based on body positivity, but I struggled with this for a variety of reasons. I didn’t agree that she was gorgeous; I actually found the preening (of her character) grating; and jokes about being able to distract men by being pretty served for me to further emphasize the fact that so many women are forced to feel inadquate because their accomplishments aren’t valued while their physical assets are. I think as a comedienne she was getting to some ugly, deeper truths about society, but if I was going with the show and being superficial, it wasn’t working for me. But I don’t go see comedy because, while I like a farce, I’m not really one for standup. (November 25-29, 20:20)

Fortunately as a followup we got the smashing brilliance of Holestar, “The Tranny with a Fanny,” whose single song cheered me up to no end. I think it was about being fabulous but also about sometimes being a head case, but it seemed both revelatory and glamorous with a heavy sprinkling of glitter. This was the one show I became convinced I really want to see but given she’s only on one night (November 19, 20:30), it’s just not possible. You have been warned.

Now, was a member of the Boris and Sergey puppeteer troupe really missing from the closing performance (“Preposterous Improvisation Experiment”) or was doing it solo (actually with three people) part of the improv? At any rate, the wild recreation of Kate Bush’s performance for “Wuthering Heights” had us all bowled over laughing. I’m not sure when I’ve got a 10PM slot free to see them but I have to say I’m tempted to see what I can squeeze in. (Nov 20-22 and 27-29, 22:00)

This left us with a bizarre dance routine in which Seren Adieu overperformed with backup dancers. We were quite warmed up and it was received well, and thus the evening came to an end! I’m sure overall there are a lot of shows worth seeing during Mimetic, so if you want to jam in three or four shows in one evening, you’ve found a festival that will serve what you’re looking for.

(The Mimetic festival continues through November 29th. There is no action on Sunday and Monday in the middle of the festival, which is sad for me as this would have been when I could go.)

Mini-review – Here Lies Love – National Theater

November 13, 2014 by

While you expect it to generate definitive productions of the classics, the National isn’t really the British home of the great new musical. I say that, but then I think, or is it? Because it seems like just last year I was there watching The Light Princess and some few years before that the one about the mass murderer in Ipswich. Well, forget that one, let’s go back to The Light Princess: inventive, beautiful, gorgeously sung, it was just a few hummable tunes away from greatness.

This is a good position for the National to be as it launches its latest musical venture, Here Lies Love, which takes the winning ingredient of known pop composer (with experimental tendencies) and adds the discipline of historical fact (I see that other musical elbowing its way in) to gives us Evita meets Mamma Mia … well, not quite, but we do get disco balls, glitter, and miles of really big hair and a female lead with an ego too big for any one country to contain.

You know, I read that, and I’m thinking it already sounds great, and I haven’t even started talking about what really makes this show awesome (although I am earwormed with the title track as I type this) – but be advised apparently plenty of other people have figured this out as it’s already sold out for the next 3 months. So let me tease you: if you get one of the standing seats (normally a source of horror for me) you will spend the 90 minutes of this show in the middle of the Philippine revolution – although you’ll also go to a beauty pageant in a small town, dance at a 50s ball, disco down in New York town, and even attend a funeral, all while the various platforms of the stage whizz and whirl around you. From the dance floor, you will be guided by pink jumpsuited ushers and encouraged by a bleach-haired DJ who keeps the beats thumping while you’re being taught to line dance.

What I found particularly brilliant about this show is that all of this fun is happening while we’re being walked through the life story of a side figure of international politics, Imelda Marcos: a woman who I suspect liked to see herself as Jackie Kennedy but who wound up being some cross between Evita and Anna Nicole. Brimming with ego, not actually the sophisticate she imagined herself, Imelda was basically a beauty queen who married well. It sounds sordid but it becomes even juicier when you see how this little woman reacts when she gets some power. Is it pretty? well, no, but that would have been bland. It’s all made more edgy through the use of photos and occasional sound tapes that remind us that for all what we’re watching is fictionalized, and the lives that Imelda affected were very real. Mmm mmm, a musical with bite that leaves you humming along. Makes you glad they’re running it twice a night on non-school nights doesn’t it?

(This review is for a performance that took place November 12, 2014. It runs through January 8th.)

Mini-Review – La Soiree – Spiegeltent on the Southbank

November 12, 2014 by

It would be disingenous for me to say that when OfficialTheater.com offered me a ticket to a bloggers’ night at La Soiree that I said yes from a situation of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ignorance, or that, say, I went only because I was desperate to do a little networking with my peers. But no: I said yes in a state of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wisdom, for lo, I have been to La Soiree and La Clique before, not just once, but many times, and I had both a good idea of what to expect and a high degree of confidence that I was going to have a good night.

But you, dear reader, you may not know what to expect. So step right up, and see the sexy amazeness that is the lightly dressed and slightly naughty (or even positively rude) entertainment that constitutes a night at La Soiree, where the MCs are gender indeterminate (or actually just shiny blue bunnies), the seats are all good (unless you’re right in the front row and don’t like being spoken to, sat on, or touched), and we have to admit that we’re all grown up enough to laugh uproariously at a mustachioed comedian reading romance novels out loud and saying “it rose from his body like a hairless dachshund.”

La Soiree both draws from a pool of “regulars” and also varies who is on stage both from night to night (to some extent) and over the course of the run, so there’s no guaranteeing that what I saw will be what you see. But what I saw was Ursula Martinez’ fabulous disappearing hanky routine (“Did you see vagina? I wasn’t expecting vagina,” our hostess said), the English Gents increasingly ripped balancing act (with pipes, bowler hats, and Financial Times), and Jonathan Burn’s stomach wrenching contortion routine. New to me and just fantastic were aerialist/balance artists David and Fofo, whose orally exchanged ping pong balls turned my stomach but whose quick flips on the trapeze had me roaring with appreciation.

For two hours the evening really sailed by, with dirty jokes, stripping, and side boob galore, plus Feats of Strength and Daring that cranked the excitement levels way up. And there was lots of laughing. Man! I saw all of those booths on the side, and I thought, “Why doesn’t MY office take me to an awesome night like La Soiree?” But you know, it’s early in the season, and I just might drop the suggestion. Unless you’re a prude, it really is a night with something to please all (naughty) tastes, and I’m just going to have to try to go again later in the run.

(This review is for a performance that took place Tuesday, November 11, 2014. It continues through January 11th.)

Mini-review – Henry IV (parts I and II) – Phyllida Lloyd at Donmar Warehouse

November 7, 2014 by

What happens when a New Year’s resolution clashes with an overwhelming desire to, well, break it so as to get an outstanding artistic experience? This was the conundrum I faced when I realized the Donmar had brought back Phyllida Lloyd to do another Shakespeare – I’d turned down so many shows based on my resolution to see no plays I’d already seen this year, was I going to break it just because I liked the director? It hadn’t been enough for Enemy of the People or the supposedly outstanding View from the Bridge or even the Simon Russell Beale King Lear. But then a solution presented itself: it appeared I had not actually seen this play before, at least not on a stage. Ha HAH! And with a £10 seat happily secured, I made my way to the Donmar guilt free.

Now be warned: you won’t be allowed in the Donmar at the typical entrance until 15 minutes before show time; ticket collection and general milling pre-show all happens across the street. We’re all sent over en masse as if we’re being transported between prisons: or so I assume because I showed up about 5 minutes beforehand so missed most of the sturm und drang and just followed the blue or yellow line to my appropriate seating area, only I stopped paying attention to what the “guard” said as I was looking for the toilet and promptly went into the wrong seating area. So much for us being under lock and key. Frankly, after 7 years of getting the “immigrant special” treatment from UKBA, I found this all very soft touch. It was interesting seeing the inside of the Donmar all lit up with fluorescents and, yes, it did look very industrial, but this really wasn’t hitting the immersive theater level of experience for me.

And … on with the play. Although I hadn’t seen it before, I had very recently read John Julius Norwich’s Shakespeare’s Kings, so I was on top of the plot as well as the historical truth underneath the story (or occasionally warring with the play): the genuine problem Henry IV was having with rebellions, the fictitious nature of Falstaff, the gross exaggerations of “Hal’s” behavior. The core of the story was a section of comedy, about Prince Hal and Falstaff getting up to tricks, and the ongoing murderous soon to be civil war, with Shakespeare’s overarching narrative of the illegality of Henry IV’s assumption of the throne (nicely told in Richard II).

This time, however, Phyllida Lloyd’s treatment did not hit the kind of emotional heights her Julius Caesar did. The “we’re really in a jail, look, see?” bits seemed forced (the greatest one being when Falstaff tells off the female barkeep), the emotional underpinnings of both the relationship between Hal and Falstaff and the relationship between Hal and his father – these things should have moved me, but they didn’t. I was watching actors playing inmates, but mostly playing characters in a Shakespearean play. The most effective elements were the battle prep and then battle scenes, done as appropriate for women in a prison – a lot of weightlifting, some very effective chin ups, and then for the battle between Hotspur and Harry, a nice boxing ring smash-up that seemed entirely perfect and much more potent in a jail setting.

But, well, that really just makes it a gimmick, don’t you think? Caesar hurt because the actresses were women struggling to make something of their lives behind bars and finding refuge in the bigness of this story; Henry IV was just a play set in a prison. Ah well. It was a fine show and a very good value for £10 but not earthshattering; but at least I’ve finally seen this play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on November 3, 2014. It continues through November 29th.)

Review – Las Maravillas: the Lost Souls of Mictlan – The Dreamery at Rosemary Branch Theater

November 6, 2014 by

Now that it has closed, I can safely say that Las Maravillas was one of the most horrifying theatrical experiences I have had in years. Not frightening: tops for that is still Stewart Pringle’s “As Ye Sow”, but horrifying as in horrible, a la Fram or the monstrous 4:48 Psychosis Fourth Monkey put on some years back.

The concept was good: a Mexican look at horror, combining the Aztec mythos and Day of the Dead imagery. But there were troubles at the start: the entry times were quite vague, so people were being dumped in a queue and told they might have to wait over an hour to get in. With a premium ticket, you could skip this, but I sensed some very unhappy customers at the ticket desk.

My group was met at the entrance to the former archives at the Rosemary Branch building (in the basement) by an animal headed person who was, I think, meant to represent an Aztec god, possibly of the underworld. However, the effect of his pronouncements about the journey we were about to undertake was ruined by the people I was with – a group of giggling girlies who were there for someone’s birthday party. MISERY. I spent the entire evening hoping one of the “monsters” would drag them off, but no such luck.

What followed was a series of what I would call animated tableaux – set pieces with actors in them, sometimes telling us stories, sometimes putting on a performance for us to watch. Although clearly done on a limited budget, the various rooms were actually quite atmospheric – from the first one with its strobe lights and hanging dolls to my favorite, the spider queen’s room, with little web-wrapped morsels dangling from the ceiling.

However, the actual level of the performances was, in my eyes, at a drama school level or below. Both the blind story teller and the “forest killers” were overacting hams who utterly failed to convince me of what they were doing; to either frighten me or pull me in. It was the second or third night, so I think any jitters would have been overcome; and each piece was being done about eight times a night so there was certainly plenty of chance for getting it right. But nothing gelled. I was touched physically, I was whispered to, but all I was doing was walking around under a basement with a bunch of people in fancy dress. It just didn’t work. I felt it didn’t really take advantage of any of the deeper options of Mexican culture it could have hit; and, ultimately, I wound up disappointed, apologizing to the person who came with me for dragging them along. Ah well, at least it was short.

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 28, 20014. It is now closed.)

Mini-review – Dracula – Whitby Abbey

November 1, 2014 by

Of all things, I did not expect to see a live performance while doing my standard tourist bit of wandering around an English Heritage site during my holiday in Whitby. But there were the signs – “Dracula, 11:30, 1:30, 3:30,” and the woman at the front desk assured me it was free, started soon, and only ran for an hour. This had me 90% on board (10% suspicious that it was going to be horrible), but while I sat on the grounds and ate my nice hog roast sandwich, I heard a family assuring another one that the show was great “and really funny.” Well, I hadn’t imagined Dracula as a comedy, but it was the kind of enthusiastic recommendation money can’t buy, and a funny version of this play sounded far more entertaining than “an attempting to be frightening” one. Besides, I was interested in seeing how they incorporated the abbey into the production. I wolfed down the remainders of my sandwich and trotted over to the visitors center to join the milling soon-to-be audience.

The afternoon started with a panto style warm up, in which we were coached a bit on our booing and cheering, warned about not tripping over lighting cables, and given pre-written questions by what appeared to be the compere; he then said he was going to “just walk that way” and look for his friend Johnathan Harker, “who looks an awful lot like me.” This cue about actors being double cast was probably helpful to the children in the audience (seemed like there were at least ten) but was also very funny and typical of an element of calling out the artificiality of the production to humorous effect throughout the show.

As it turns out, this whole show was actually done by only three actors (and a large basket), which was pretty impressive considering each of them did at least four different people. It was pretty comic, though, to have Dr Van Helsing, Vampire Hunter, also playing Count Dracula. The kids worked this out pretty quickly and kept reminded the actors “but it’s actually you” and “of course you can’t find him, you have to go change costumes.” Yet depite the close observation we kept the performers under, I never saw an actual costume change, and the highly mobile face of the one actress meant that with just a wig she easily went from uptight Mina to broadly comic Slavic townsperson to slutty Vampire Bride. Her best transormation was as Lucy (Mina’s friend); although she changed clothes, she mostly just changed her facial expression (like she was sucking a lemon) and still completely looked like a different person. Good job you!

Use of the Abbey was mostly perfunctory, I’m sorry to say, and I’m especially sorry they didn’t use the open stone coffin in any of the scenes (sticking instead the the much more mobile – and dryer- wicker basket). However, a clifftop scene in Whitby was nicely done in front of the south wall of the abbey, and of course the scenes set in a crypt (where Lucy is captured) – done in the Nave, with the big columns – and again in Dracula’s hiding place (performed in the transept) took full advantage of both hiding places, building features, and the general spooky atmosphere provided by the weathered stone. Of course, we didn’t do anything in the abbey’s crypt – I’m not sure if it hasn’t collapsed – but it was all real enough to leave one six year old sobbing in fright at the end.

Sadly, the children were in general far TOO talkative, and while I enjoy seeing an actor forced to improv as much as the next person (the scene where Harker accused Van Helsing of attacking him with spit was great, and I loved watching the same actor attempt to explain away why the corpse of Lucy was shaking with laughter), one blond child really needing some restraining by his parents, as he got to the point where he was treating nearly every line as if it were being addressed to him personally and needed an answer. I thought this was just bad manners and thought his parents should have stopped being so amused and maybe pulled him aside to tell him that he needed to let the actors talk to each other because that his how a play works. However, they seemed to be nonexistent; but dead Lucy (when she returned as a vampire) did her best to let him know how little she appreciated his lack of control.

Overall, the show moved amazingly quickly through the scenes, and while it ran over (due to the kids, I think), I still found myself fully engaged throughout the production. It helped that the weather was mild and there wasn’t even a hint of rain; while those things add atmosphere they also sap your strength when you’re watching theater outdoors. Good job, you guys, hope to see you all performing again sometime soon!

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 31st, 2014. Final performances are today, November 1st. This TripAdvisor review has a nice photo that captures the atmosphere well.)

Review – Grand Guignol – Theater Royal Plymouth at Southwark Playhouse

October 29, 2014 by

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse – or, rather, I thought I knew what to expect … a series of short and terrifying/bloody plays, perhaps all from the original plays of the Grand Guignol, or perhaps all or some new but “in the style.”

What, you say you are unfamiliar with the Grand Guignol Theater (perhaps only knowing it as a a euphemism for the bloody stage predecessor of the slasher flick)? Then this play may be perfect for you, because what it really is is a recreation of the theater at the time, a sort of homage slash farce featuring shocking (but ironic) overacting, buckets of body parts (laying about the stage like laundry), and delicious pocket run-throughs of such classics as “A Crime in the Madhouse” and “The System.” You say you’re unfamiliar with them? Well, it’s not surprising: André de Lorde (depicted on stage by Jonathan Broadbent) wrote over 150 plays, but very few of them have been translated into English. Yet somehow each horrible play we see seems to exist in a reality of pure horror that exists outside of the normal bounds of mere storytelling and into the world of the mythic … a place inhabited by writers such as Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. This blending of metafictional reality and historical inspiration seems to me to support the choice to perform this as a farce, letting us step back into and then away from the “reality” of what’s going on. We are watching a play about a theater, with actors playing actors who had roles in the plays written by … you see what I mean? But it all starts out with a wink, and so we accept that it’s a bit of a joke, but once we’ve taken that step, then we come a little closer to believing the falseness on stage (I have to say having the ceiling swaying over head about did me in) and then, when the “reality” of the play – that there are real murders going on and genuine madness in the cast – starts to creep into the story, then suddenly we no longer know if we are watching a play or an actual murder. And the walls start spurting blood and the actors are dying and IT’S ALL JUST TOO SCARY!!! and then it’s bows. Wow! What a trick!

What’s amazing about this play, in retrospect, is how close it seems to have stuck to historical truth: psychologist Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) was de Lorde’s real life collaborator; Poe (one of the roles played by Andy Williams) was an inspiration for the Guignol plays, if not necessarily a spectral presence threatening de Lorde with harm if he didn’t do as instructed; and Paula Maxa (Emily Raymond) was the most murdered actress in Paris. I suspect that all of the plays that we were given tiny snippets of were actually based on real works of de Lorde’s; it all adds verisimilitude to the actual plot, which involves a Jack the Ripper style murderer (who could it be?) and Binet’s search for the source of de Lorde’s inspiration. Meanwhile, jokes are thrown in about the difficulties of working with audiences, the fickleness of actors, and how most critics deserve the fate of de Lorde’s fictional victims: given that I was there on press night, these jokes were met with gales of laughter.

As it turns out, even switching the comedy with horror is a technique lifted from the original Grand Guignol: I think it’s that the laughs put us into a heightened emotional state and somehow more receptive to revulsion (as a character we have begun to sympathize with is actually cruelly murdered on the stage). This play is pretty much perfectly written and performed in campy “turn the volume to eleven” glory; I can’t imagine a more perfect Halloween play or a more brilliant celebration of the infamous accomplishments of The Grand Guignol.

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 27, 2014: it continues through November 22nd. Don’t hesitate to go because Halloween is over: if you’ve got any taste for farce or passion for theatrical history, it’s a must see, and really so well acted!)


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