Pros: Great effects, wonderful ensemble, thrilling atmosphere.
Cons: It was confusing at times, and some sequences didn’t work as well as the rest.
Deep within the vaults of the Southwark Playhouse beats the bloody heart of the Grand Guignol, the legendary ‘Theatre of Horror’ that has inspired dramatic depictions of gore and brutality for over a hundred years. Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production of Carl Grose’s obscenely clever play (first staged in 2009) presents a fictionalised account of the key players involved in the Grand Guignol, as well as showing enactments of some of its most infamous shows.
The space itself is beautifully designed and constructed, with a proscenium arch (complete with red velvet curtains) and large moveable set-pieces really setting the scene. Alex Doidge-Green’s design is delightfully intricate in its detail – not only do all the furnishings and props fit perfectly, but so do all the gory effects, showing the kind of early 20th century ingenuity that made the Grand Guignol such a roaring success in its time. The set is complimented wonderfully by David W. Kidd’s disconcerting lighting and Adrienne Quarterly’s chilling sound design, so that the Grand Guignol’s unique atmosphere is maintained throughout.
The terrific ensemble of actors inject a coffin-load of energy and fun into their macabre surroundings, most of them playing multiple roles to hilarious effect: Jonathan Broadbent imbues the charismatic, twisted playwright Andre De Lorde with an infectious, devilish glee. Andy Williams plays the sleazy, money-grubbing theatre manager Max Maurey with aplomb, but really shines with his bombastic portrayal of the ghost of Edgar Poe – a delight whenever he bursts onto the stage. Paul Chequer and Emily Raymond do superb jobs playing the morbidly creative stage manager Ratineau and ‘the world’s most assassinated woman’ Maxa respectively, both of whom display a chilling enjoyment of the violent world in which they dwell.
Matthew Pearson’s perpetually nervous and overwhelmed psychiatrist Dr Binet provides a hugely enjoyable foil for the others to practice their dark arts upon. My personal highlight, however, was Robert Portal’s turn as the outrageously hammy lead actor, Paulais: he perfectly captures both the melodrama of the age and the tone of the piece, and every subtle movement and delivery of a humorous line is judged to perfection, leaving the audience in fits of laughter.
The show itself rockets along at a great pace, and every sequence and transition is incredibly slick. Director Simon Stokes clearly knows what he’s doing in terms of recreating the atmosphere of the Grand Guignol. The laughs and the blood both come thick and fast. There are healthy doses of hilarious melodrama and moments of genuine shock and apprehension, ever-building towards a final crescendo.
Most impressively of all, Stokes manages to achieve the very goal of the original Grand Guignol: he has us thirsting for blood, gore, horror, and has us laughing gleefully every time we get it. While there were some moments (such as a slow-motion death scene in the second half) which felt somewhat anachronistic, this did little to detract from a great piece of entertaining theatre. Even when all Hell broke loose in the second half and I had little idea exactly what was going on, I didn’t care – I was bloody loving it.
Author: Carl Grose
Director: Simon Stokes
Producer: Theatre Royal Plymouth
Booking Until: 25th October
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-large/grand-guignol/