Mini-review – Grand Guignol “Summer of Terror” – Exeter Alternative Theate at London Horror Festival

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Autumn has rolled into town, and along with fallen leaves and pumpkins, it’s time for the LONDON HORROR FESTIVAL! I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to catch an annual dose of frights, especially to see the now-out-of-fashion Grand Guignol plays. The “Summer of Terror” triple bill from Exeter Alternative Theater looked especially promising – two classics AND a new play, and a running time of one hour, plus it was in a pub so you could bring in drinks – basically, perfect – in and out and if it all got too scary, I knew I’d be able to hold out long enough for it to wrap up.

The plays had some common themes between them – rage, revenge, infidelity – that made for some interesting thoughts on the common threads of human motivations. Grand Guignol can be about mad scientists working in laboratories or the ghosts of serial killers, but what’s really terrifying is how the behavior of normal human beings can snap under certain kinds of pressure. In the first playlet, “The Last Kiss,” “he” (for so the male lead is called) has clearly gone round the bend some time before the curtain rose. “He” (Leigh Steadman) is blinded, but still has an overwhelming desire to his ex-lover, despite the fact that “she” (Carolyn Macey) blinded him. You know it’s not going to have a happy ending, but just how bleak is it going to go? I would have preferred Steadman to have dialed down “his” madness a bit, so we were sucked into the turnings of his mind, but I thought Macey was on as the dead-eyed girlfriend who couldn’t resist the call of curiosity – and maybe still had a fire burning for the man she injured in a fit of jealousy. And, to be clear, she was stunningly beautiful, exactly the kind of girl you could imagine “him” pining for and desperately trying to get back. Fin O’Leary’s landlady provided a lovely touch of normality to the whole business, which was over and done with before I’d made it to the bottom of my half of cider.

Next up was “Coals of Fire” (which, like “Last Kiss,” was written by Frederick Witney), a two-hander featuring a blind woman (“The Wife”) and her servant (“The Companion”). Taking place in an era in which divorce required proving fault, social services for the disabled were sketchy (as seen by the previous playlet), and unmarried women could be forced to have babies in “homes,” the play was fraught with the pressures both of personal lives and social norms. I found it extremely disturbing to see The Wife feel up The Companion to ascertain if her figure were good; but I also felt strongly the dilemma that any servant would have for being dismissed under questionable circumstances. The ending was brutal and apparently went against the original censor’s recommendations; but WHEW! It crackled! And while both characters seemed stiff at the start, I found myself relaxing into their conundrum quite naturally long before the end, which made for a much higher emotional impact.

Finally we got to the new play, “The Death of Love” (written by director Louis Ravensfield). It started with a highly improbably set up – a man and two women are stuck in a room together, tied to their chairs, and the man (Martin – Alan Smith) has to decide whom to shoot, his wife (Julia – Gabby Dexter) or his lover (Becky – Nicky Crew). It seemed rather ridiculous – I mean, really, how did NONE of them know how they got there (and this was never really resolved) – but, really, it was all just a trope to get us into the action. And it quickly grew very intense, as the women begged for their lives, cast aspersions on each other, and generally ratcheted up the pressure so much that even I was feeling Martin’s struggle. Where WAS it going to go? It ended with a twist and a bang, and, really, provided the biggest sizzle of the evening.

To be fair, there was a lot of clunkiness overall in this evening, but I still left feeling like I’d had a good time – neither too frightened nor in the least bored. Good job, Exeter Alternative Theater, and thanks for coming to London for a visit!

(This review is for a performance that took place at the Etcetera Theater in Camden on Sunday, October 19th, 2013. Final performances are tonight, October 21st, at 19:30 and 21:30. Do not order food unless you have at least a half hour to wait; the pub is VERY slow sserving.)

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