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.
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)