Saying Carl Grose’s Grand Guignol, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, is perfect for Halloween is a huge understatement, as well as a disservice. Bloody, gory, funny and twisted, it has you snort-laughing through your nose and then checking if any blood came out. It has the innocent unpretentious naffness of 19th century travelling shows, yet it starts getting to you, because “actors, playwrights, lunatics” are all “imminently fascinating”, especially when there is no line between them, blurred or otherwise.
For all its upfront silliness, it’s knowingly – but not annoyingly – smart, and surprisingly incisive. More importantly, it’s about creativity and the theatre, which means I was bound to love it with a love that knows no bounds. Give me a play within a play, a wink behind the scenes, a seedy part of town with a company of actors – and I am happy as pig in shit. Which is the point: it’s unselfconsciously colourful, yet playfully tender.
If we were to talk about plot, it’s Paris, the first half of twentieth century, and the city is heaving and craving. Is it blood, murder, screams, desire? Andre de Lorde, playwright by night, something gentler by day, will give it to them. Alfred Binet, scientist by day, curious and fearful by night, wants to help but meddles beyond what he understands. Actors, playwrights, lunatics indeed, plus theatre critics (“puritanical arseholes”, think Tim Walker and you get the idea) and rich admirers turning financiers (“Her purse twitched and gaped”). And lots of frights.
The production, directed by Simon Stokes, has contrasting sharpness, not unlike a black and white film, and the uncynical approach to match. The actors play the truth of it with surgical precision and a stark kind of transparency. Jonathan Broadbent as Andre de Lorde (the self-proclaimed “Prince of Terror”) is reassuringly self-possessed, almost angelic, creating a character which is both unquestionably attractive and fundamentally unnerving. Matthew Pearson as Binet preserves that precious wide-eyed quality, like a teenage protagonist in a horror film, without compromising credibility. The four remaining actors (Paul Chequer, Robert Portal, Emily Raymond, Andy Williams) take on a variety of roles (and I absolutely mean a variety of roles) and play the moments like spinning plates in the air: quick and fun and with brilliant timing.
Set, props, effects and lighting carry memories of films and plays and midnight horror screenings. As I said before, plays talk to each other, and having seen Tis PIty She’s a Whore only two nights before, I had the pleasure of comparing use and pools of blood (look out for the “blood” spreading underneath the door).
A gloriously silly – and occasionally not so silly – horror farce, as winter as Dickens, as funny as a horror ride, as chilling as Twilight Zone, as bloody as a Jacobean tragedy. A gift for the nights drawing in.
Thanks to Official Theatre for the ticket, click here to explore additional theatre info on their website.