The centrepiece of the London Horror Festival is Revenge of the Grand Guignol, a series of four vignettes inspired by the plays of the infamous Parisian Theatre and, in particular, by the work of the Grand Guignol playwright André de Lord.
The first piece, The Laboratory of Hallucinations, is the most explicitly linked to the French original. In an isolated clinic, a scientist is conducting brain experiments on terminal patients, tapping their frontal lobes, tinkering with their internal machinery. His wife decides she can no longer stand to stay with him, to be menaced and threatened, to listen to the screams emanating from the basement, so along with her somewhat unreliable lover she plots her escape. It takes a while – perhaps too long – for the premise to be established, but the piece eventually comes together, combining a campy Hammer quality with a lick of David Cronenberg-esque unpleasantness, but while this was the most faithful adaptation it was also the weakest; it did, however, serve as an interesting counterpoint to the pieces that followed.
By contrast, the second play, Stewart Pringle’s As Ye Sow, is the most successful of the four. An elderly man (a well-pitched performance by Jeffrey Mayhew) is visited by his daughter in the care home where he now resides, having been in decline since his wife’s disappearance eight years ago. His daughter has a scheme to remedy their financial worries, but when she explains it to her father he becomes increasingly fretful and upset. Elegantly blending elements of J-Horror – technology offers no solace here, the television and the radio are not your friends – with domestic drama, the piece contains some proper jolts but it’s the small details, the things half-glimpsed and half-heard, which really unnerve.
The third piece, Hero, sees de Lorde’s 1902 play Au Téléphone updated to the age of Skype. A medical student conducts a web-cam conversation with his girlfriend who is halfway across the world, working as a teacher in Russia. The student (nicely played by James Utechin), we eventually learn, is concealing another woman in his room, and what begins as the most light-hearted play of the night, soon begins to wrong-foot its audience; the initial jokiness falls away in favour of a drawn out, stark conclusion. Though Tom Richards’ update introduces a visual component and thereby opens up what was originally one-sided and left to the imagination, it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness – in fact it feels very much in keeping with the original’s suggestion that the devices designed to connect people can end up emphasising the distance between them.
The Blind Women, the final part of the varied quartet, has an air of Ballardian disconnect. It’s ostensibly set during the Blitz, but could easily be set during some future conflict; it has a floating, unsteady quality which is only enhanced by the harsh, jarring industrial sound effects. A young woman comes to work at a wartime munitions factory staffed predominantly by blind women where she immediately triggers the resentment of Greta (a menacing Scarlet Sweeney), a woman hardened, scarred, and more than a little unhinged. It’s the most overtly horrific of the four plays but interestingly, despite the escalating tension created by the proliferation of sharp things, it’s not as effective as the previous two pieces.
The production as a whole has a pleasing tonal variety, though possibly more could have been done to compensate for the lengthy set changes. And, in lieu of a David Warner or a Robert Powell figure to knit everything together, some form of title card might have better helped to shape things, to mark out the lines between each separate play. But, these small concerns aside, what impresses most of all about the production is its avoidance of cheap laughs and easy scares in favour of a focus on the psychology of horror, and the way in which the most successful of the plays here manage to tap into contemporary fears while still honouring their Grand Guignol origins
This production is part of the London Horror Festival. For more information, and details of other shows in the season, visit their website.