Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Horror! The Horror! is horribly good fun

I have been looking forward to Theatre of The Damned's new production The Horror! The Horror! for a couple of reasons. One, I know one of the writers, a fellow Exeunt scribe whose work I've been impressed with before, but secondly because it was set in one of my favourite spaces, Wilton's Music Hall. The world's oldest surviving Grand Music Hall, Wilton's is a wonderful venue, wearing its history on its slightly shabby sleeve, and as its main hall is currently being renovated, I was keen to see how the rest of the building would be used. 

Overall, I wasn't disappointed, as the show was enormous fun, and perfect for a pre-Halloween outing. Following a bunch of music hall performers trying to impress 'investors' as their theatre comes under new management, we are led from one act to another through a maze of rooms in the ageing building, but things soon start to go dreadfully wrong...

 A series of clever and entertaining scenes played out by an engaging and talented cast  (special props to Alicia Bennett and Kate Quinn, whose opening scene is a standout, and features an infuriatingly catchy song that I'm still humming), the show uses Wilton's space beautifully, tapping into both its history and the always slightly illicit feel of being behind the scenes. While there are some genuinely creepy moments, and a few things that'll make you jump, it's more schlocky, gory fun than 'I won't be able to sleep tonight' terror (which is how I like my horror, so no complaints from me), and though it's easy to dismiss horror shows as cheap and easy entertainment, it's actually very clever - one of my favourite bits was an almost throwaway visual scene, so pitch black and perfectly executed (if you'll, ahem, pardon the pun) I'm still chuckling days later. It's also nice and short - as anyone who read my Sleep No More review will remember, my tolerance for being schlepped around in the dark is very, very limited, and at just over an hour this doesn't outstay its welcome. 

Of course it's not without flaws. Although individually each scene works in context, cumulatively the show presents a picture of women I was fairly uncomfortable with (in fairness, I spoke to one of the writers afterwards, and he admitted the real difficulty in referencing historical horror tropes without reinforcing them, and said they may look at tweaking this to fix it). A scene with a splendidly unlikeable comedian (Jonathan Kemp) goes on a hair's breadth too long, and the logistics of fitting a lot of people into small spaces meant occasionally it was hard for everyone to see what was going on (not actually a problem for me, since I am a sharp-elbowed Geordie whose skills at getting to the front of a crowded room were honed in the heavingly busy pubs of Newcastle - my ability to get served and get a table in seconds remains legendary to this day - but I did hear others grumble).

But overall, it's an innovative use of a fabulous space, and I would heartily recommend it (alas, it's sold out now, but keep an eye out in case they return - I know they have some more shows in the pipeline, so maybe worth checking their website to see what's coming up) and I hope Wilton's puts on more of it's ilk.



  1. Hullo! [PART ONE!]

    First of all thanks for the review, and v glad you enjoyed the show.

    Is always lovely to drink far too much wine with you, but also very good to talk through some of the issues you had with the presentation of women (alluded to in your review).

    Right, the TL;DR version - We agreed with your main objection, it wasn't an interpretation we'd considered, but on hearing it and understanding it we felt it was right to make a small amendment to the script. Tis done!

    Now for a minor ramble...feel free to ignore.

    The issue of the presentation of women in Grand Guignol is one we've talked about and thought about quite a bit, and it obviously has the potential to become very problematic. The vast majority of original Grand Guignol plays feature female victims, often murdered in horrible ways for perceived 'transgressions' against perceived societal rules, implicit or explicit. When we've performed them in the past we've been aware that in creating an evening of short plays you end up creating a sort of concatenation of violence against women.

    I would argue pretty strongly that Crime in a Madhouse functions well as a comment on the powerlessness of women who fall out of the economic and socio-sexual systems which dictate her sphere of movement, with the young 'fallen' woman eventually mutilated by three distorted 'hags', types of the 'un-female' female who conspire to make her like them.

    BUT...if you pair it with A Kiss Goodnight, or with The Torture Garden, or with The Lighthouse Keepers, or with pretty much any of the decent and available plays and you create an evening in which one of the recurrent themes, whether you like it or not, is the brutalisation or murder of young girls. You can even read a very conservative moral imperative into it, of the kind that Carpenter was accused of post-'Halloween'. I would argue that the actual universe of the Grand Guignol is one which rejects all morality, where the innocent are punished as often as the wicked, and a sort of reciprocity of violence sparks back and forth between the characters until they're disintegrated, but not everyone will see it that way, and not every production will attain a sufficient intensity to bring this nihilistic quality to the fore.


  2. (PART TWO!!)

    And then there's our current show:


    In many ways the same sort of thing applies. I don't think any of the stories in isolation are misogynistic. Certain aspects are reflections of the time period, but I hope that they are given a certain degree of interrogation. However, taken as a whole, there are a lot of young girls being murdered/mutilated, and not a lot of young boys coming in for the same treatment. The violence is never sadistic, but that thread of one-sided brutality persists even amid the blatant campery of the piece. It's not something we're going to solve with this one, but it's something we want to look at next time we stage a production like this. Our MD's suggestion 'you need to kill more boys!' may have been partially flippant, but it does hint towards a more healthy gender balance for theatrical massacres.

    There was, however, another problem in the show up to and including the night Tracey saw it, where a comment by one of the performers could be interpreted as aligning rather maliciously with the denouement. Tracey and Natasha Tripney spoke to us about this after the show, and we decided to change the line.

    It wasn't a hard decision for us, because it wasn't about censorship. It was about making sure that audiences appreciate the climax for the gory, carnivalesque, old school thrill that it's supposed to be, not a cheap and vicious assault on the audience's sensibilities. We've done shows which we intended to push the envelope and play free and easy with how far theatre should go, but 'The Horror!' isn't one of them. It's supposed to be a fun night out with a macabre sense of humour, and hopefully with this slight alteration these intentions are a bit clearer.

    Stewart x

  3. Stewart, thanks for taking the time to reply. As you know, however ineloquently I am sure I expressed it, my main concern was with that particular line, which I felt gave the piece a truly unfortunate (and, I realise from what I know of you, genuinely unintended) reading which I think marred what was otherwise a tremendously fun piece. I do think it's tricky to reference old stereotypes - which, as you say, are often actually critiquing an attitude rather than simply reinforcing it. With that particular problem solved by removing that reading, I think the effect, while balanced (just, in fairness) against female victims, is far less worrying!