The whole set is fucking lovely in fact. They’ve built a raised stage and proscenium arch with wooden side panels that would not look out of place at a chapel, thick red curtains and a creaking and rickety roof, all within Southwark Playhouse’s Large space.
Grose and director Simon Stokes have pitched things perfectly. The play operates as both a potted history, celebration and pastiche of the repertoire of the famous Theatre of Blood. The best known plays – The Laboratory of Hallucinations and Crime in a Madhouse – are re-enacted but we also get a flavour of life behind the scenes: the interplay between their star writer André de Lorde - who penned so many of their tales of insanity and murder and came to be known as the ‘Prince of Terror’, (here played by an affable, almost chipper Jonathan Broadbent) – the theatre owner, and the acting company. The tone touches on Hammer-y camp sometimes but stays the right side of the line.
While the characters remain stock types, the cast have fun playing with them. Andy Williams does double duty as the theatre manager, Max Maurey, as well as cameoing as de Lorde’s inspiration and muse, Edgar Allen Poe (as played by Vincent Price shouldering a stuffed raven), while Robert Portal has a great time eating up the scenery as the Grand Guignol’s leading man, Georges Paulais, and Emily Raymond gives a similarly ripe performance as the scream queen of her day, Paula Maxa, “the most assassinated woman in the world”, whose lot was to be brutally dispatched and violated on stage in a series of ingenious and bloody ways.
Paul Chequer plays Ratineau, the man responsible for many of the props and make-up effects of the Grand Guignol, and designer Alex Doidge-Green has – wonderfully – recreated several of these objects and devices. There are curious and gruesome surgical tools, slithering tentacles of intestine, an abundance of clotted, matted hair, slashed and flayed and acid-eroded prosthetics, and various alarming contraptions into which a person can be clamped and tethered. A machine for the reanimation of severed heads is a particular delight.
Matthew Pearson plays de Lorde’s sometime collaborator, the experimental psychiatrist Alfred Binet – a nervy sort of fellow, a fainter – and the play’s more messy moments are interspersed with conversations between the two about the genesis of horror in the human mind, whether it takes some form of real life trauma to generate such macabre fantasies, whether they serve a psychological purpose.
These sequences can be a little dry at times, they can slow the pace of things, though to be fair the production would probably feel rather relentless without them. A better balance is, however, struck in the properly juddering second half, when the layers of reality within the world of the play start to overlap, when the Grand Guignol starts to exert its crimson-fingered grip, when the blood begins to pool and ooze and drip.