Directed by Adam Hemming
Pros: A healthy serving of black humor and a handful of top-notch performances.
Cons: The play is entirely too long and struggles to follow a coherent trajectory.
Our Verdict: The Grand Guignol is an intriguing but unfocused work that, despite some biting wit and interesting subject matter, has too many ideas that it fails to see through.
|Courtesy of The Space|
Francis Kobayashi penned The Grand Guignol after reading an article about a historical theatre in France that was made famous for producing gruesome and explicit material. His play is an epic history of the Grand Guignol theatre, ranging from the 1920s to the Second World War, spanning approximately twenty years – which is exactly how long I felt the play lasted. Not that there weren’t some valuable tidbits, but unfortunately, the play was too jam-packed with attempts to cover anything and everything interesting about the theatre that the result was a meandering, all together too-long experience without much of a story arc.
The first 40 minutes are concerned with the theatre’s establishment. We are introduced to Oscar Metenier, a writer fascinated by life on the streets. The play opens as he begs a prostitute for her life story, and next we see his staged version of her torrid history receiving accolades and outrage. This leads him to team up with investor Max Maurey to open a theatre to house his shock-and-awe productions. It’s not until Oscar’s anticlimactic death scene more than a half-hour into the performance that we meet the story’s real protagonist, Maxa. While I understand Kobayashi’s desire to establish the history of the theatre, I didn’t have any real investment in the story for the better part of an hour.
The narrative continues to hurl messily forward, tossing out seeds and never allowing them to grow. Perhaps more frustrating than the three-quarters of an hour spent on exposition was Maxa’a interaction with the infamous Blue Beard, a serial killer who inspired a play at the Grand Guignol. This plot point concluded the first act and I thought that finally I could see where the play was going. Unfortunately, when I returned for Act II, Blue Beard was long gone and an unidentifiable number of years had passed. The play’s focus instead became a production featuring Marie Antoinette, a to-scale guillotine having been hauled onstage during the interval. The guillotine was a physical manifestation of the play’s inability to bring its investments to fruition. Used for no more than five minutes, yet taking up half the stage, the guillotine was the centre of attention for a gag in which a pineapple was cut in half, and then never used again.
The real kicker for me, however, was when suddenly we hit the occupation of France, in which the focus became safely smuggling Maxa – a Jew in hiding, we learn, a little too late for the information to genuinely moving – out of France. If you had told me at the beginning of the play that it would end in Nazi-occupied France, I would not have believed you.
This was not an easy play to watch. Alongside the plethora of unfulfilled plot points, the time-frame was confusing and made all the more confusing by historically inappropriate costumes. I was sure the play took place at the turn of the century based on the dress, until we hit the Second World War and I had to do the math myself to understand where we had started.
I will say that, despite the schizophrenia of the content, several performances made it worth the watch. Ed Sheridan (Louis Cassel) and Caroline Roussel (Maxa), were lovely to watch. Sheridan in particular was compelling as the company’s patriotic and impassioned leading man, and Roussell captured sweetness and strength with ease. Daniel Collard, Tom Skitt, and Dimitri Shaw provided humour and fun, and Samantha Spurgin was excellent as the jealous Severine.
I can’t say this was my favorite piece I’ve seen at The Space, but as always I am looking forward to returning to the versatile venue, with hopes of seeing some of the excellent cast members again.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!
The Grand Guignol runs at The Space until 2 November.
Box Office: 020 7516 7799 or book online at https://space.org.uk/event-booking/?event=thegrandguignol.