Part of the Hope Theatre’s Gothic season, The Worst Was This is dystopian pastiche, taking in Frankenstein, vampirism and a reimagining of the writing of Shakespeare’s plays in a post-apocalyptic setting. An unnamed war has removed the elites and ravaged the land, and three distinctly weird sisters run a insalubrious bar where, in these troubled times, their favourite tipple seems to be a drop of human blood. Very weird sister Agatha (Sarah Barron) has been trying to reanimate corpses and moved on from cadavers to making her henchman lover, Bones, murder for her cause.
Into this world is lured one Will Shakespeare (Ben Clifford) who has been passing off a play written by his apparently dead friend Christopher Marlowe (Robin Hellier) as his own. But in this dark place, Chris has been revived by the love of sister Odette (Beth Kovarik), a love he cannot reciprocate, and instead entwines Will into a fatal authorial relationship which masks his true passions.
Yet while there are doomed lovers, grieving daughters and murderous betrayals tangled together, the plot stays rather static and genuine thrills are few and far between. Overstuffed with ideas and themes, the result is more of a fantasy romp than Gothic horror.
The genre-defying scenario is beautifully realised by Vari Gardner’s costumes, each character seemingly existing in a different fashion era – Agatha’s goth, Rue’s 80s flounce, Bones’ Victoriana, Odette’s Elizabethan wench and an urbane Will’s handsome city slicker – yet somehow gelling into a coherent world. Such world-building is essential shorthand in such a small space hosting a play with big, otherworldly ideas.
There’s plenty of imaginative flair in the writing, which oscillates between verse and prose, and mixes in snippets of Shakespeare along the way. All of it is performed adeptly by a cast who are skilled at smoothing over the genre leaps and changes in tone, keeping things feeling lyric and organic without toppling over into pomp. Warmth, humour and slapstick are at the fore and set the tone early on in the evening.
And it is, at times, hilarious. A brilliantly fleshed-out performance from Mark Jeary as Bones, the simpleton butcher who treats cannibalism with a light touch when’s he not trying to have an existential crisis way beyond his intellectual capacity, is a delight. There’s also plenty of laughs and a wonderful performance from Lauren Hurwood as Rue, the gobby sop who is the only one to see the truth of the matter through her alcoholic haze. She is, for sake of this piece, our fool. And fabulous one at that.
Robin Hellier as Christopher Marlowe provides a fine performance as the tragic hero who is both the archetypal lover and a flawed genius. If The Worst Was This ever threatens to take flight into something more emotionally engaging, it is with this character, but it comes a little too late and the spark never ignites. The play is an ambitious, funny and, at times, fascinating affair but all the more frustrating for feeling like something truly special might be lurking just below the surface.
The Worst Was This is on at The Hope Theatre until 26th November 2016. Click here for more details.