With the arrival of Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse there is finally something in south London more terrifying than the underpasses that crisscross Elephant and Castle. Well more terrifying, and more kitsch. For within Carl Grose’s knowing script is contained both a loving homage to the famous Theatre du Grand-Guignol and also a gory melodrama in which the old Parisian theatre specialised.
Grand Guignol has disappeared from the theatrical repertoire; it became a casualty of cinema’s ability to create a more naturalistic form of horror. Audiences had grown tired of the old tricks and the arrival of F.W. Murnau’s expressionist classic Nosferatu or Jacques Tourneaur’s remarkable Cat People were signs that cinema could deliver a more refined product that provided genuine psychological chills instead of cartoonish gore.
Grose’s evident love of the genre – seen through its close alignment with real characters and a smart eye for the detail – is combined with a blend of high-camp, knowing winks and straight out jokes played entirely straight. This approach is clear from the opening scene which throws the audience into the midst of the action; hearts are in mouths, not due to blood-curdling terror but rather down to the terrible dialogue, stilted delivery and risible premise. It is only when the set is rolled back and we realise that we are backstage in the theatre that we acknowledge that the scene was itself a spoof and one of many meta jokes for the theatre literate audience.
The show is supported by a strong cast who are always clear in understanding that these characters are stereotypes but that they shouldn’t be played as grotesque caricatures. It is very much an ensemble production but special mention should go to Emily Raymond as Paula Maxa. Her re-enactment of the multitude of stage deaths suffered by Maxa over the years was brilliant physical comedy and the look she gave when asked about other roles was worth the price of admission on its own. Equally Robert Portal was fabulously entertaining in his ability to let a line just hang in the air when remarking about the various troubles affecting his mother.
Credit must also be given in spades to the Theatre Royal Plymouth, listed as responsible for sets, props and costumes. It wouldn’t be Grand Guignol without lashings of the old vino over every wall, and indeed over some of the first row as well – and they delivered this in by the pint full. There were some quite ingenious contraptions but the eye-gouger seemed to be a particular audience favourite.
If there was to be any criticism then it would be that it is a shame that the nature of the play meant that there was no real opportunity to delve into the real-life world of these fascinating characters. Paula Maxa’s life as the ‘world’s most assassinated woman’, or Andre de Lorde as the ‘Prince of Terror’, created these baroque nightmares through two world wars and the great depression, and saw in the world in the atomic age – and we never got the sense of who these figures really were.
However that is to ask the play to do something that it never intended to do, and whilst the production pokes fun at its origins you don’t need to know much about the tradition to have an enjoyable evening. Its guiding principle is to ensure the audience has a good time and within these parameters it succeeds admirably – and it feels that it is an approach entirely in keeping with a theatre who realised that its raison d’être was to entertain the masses and understood this was best achieved through a heady mix of sex, revenge, gore and murder.
I must thank the good people at Official Theatre for the tickets. Even without this shameless plug, please do check out their website to find out what is going on across the West End; it has links to tickets, venue contact details and bits ‘n bobs about all the theatres – the sort of thing I would do if I wasn’t so damn lazy. (www.officialtheatre.com/fringe)
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