Revenge of the Grand Guignol heralds the very first London Horror Festival of performing arts. Staged in the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton, on the eve of Halloween, it promises great and horrible things.
Consisting of four short plays, material is mostly based on work by ‘the greatest of all horror playwrights’ Andre de Lorde, who was heavily involved in the eponymous Theatre du Grand Guignol. Hundreds of violent melodramas and cruel farces were staged to pre-film audiences from 1897 until 1962. The press material promised we would be ‘literally sick with fear’ so, anticipating some old fashioned scaring, we downed a vodka and eyeball shot and took our seat.
Opening lines, scenes, first impressions – no matter how good what follows is, these have to be strong. It was a shame then that the first play – in which a mad Victorian doctor performs horrific operations – is the weakest. The pace is slow and actors, who shine in later plays, seem to take the retro setting as license to act artificially and stiff. Not the sort of corpses we are looking for.
Play two sees things pick up. Here is a perfectly pitched atmosphere of the banality in horror which ends, we know, in thrillingly awful surprises. An old man waits at home, the Archers on the radio, a TV dinner. The picture cracks to reveal a deadly secret, involving a burial and a haunting memory. It’s the standout play of the night, in terms of acting and script, and the only completely original one. Maybe Stewart Pringle doesn’t need the clout of the horror Lorde after all.
Plays three and four take us on a journey from contemporary love tryst to an ammunitions factory in World War Two. A lovers game goes sickeningly wrong and a twist in the tale ends in a harrowing scene.
The factory play, in which a blind woman takes bloody revenge on her sighted co-worker is darkly hilarious. A line of blind munition workers stare battily ahead in their John Lennon glasses and there’s a great moment where a hammer gets whacked on a head, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
This is a fabulous concept and often The Revenge of the Grand Guignol achieves its aim of giving us a taste of old style horror and fun. It needs to remember consistently what it set out to do though – to make us quake in our boots – it is Halloween after all, mu ha ha ha ha!!!
By Belinda Liversedge
The London Horror Festival runs at Courtyard Theatre until 27 November and includes HP Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, Camden's Most Horrid plus zombie science, gothic rock, comedy improv and film screenings. Consult the full programme here. Tickets £12-15.