Horror is probably the hardest of any theatrical genre to pull off successfully, as witnessed by the decline of Gothic melodrama (once immensely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century), and the spectacular rise and fall of the theatre that gave a name to a genre, Paris’ Le ThÃ©Ã¢tre du Grand-Guignol (1867-1962), and which also inspired our hosts for the night, Theatre of the Damned.
Part of the problem is that film and TV can do the requisite special effects much more easily and realistically from an audience’s point of view. While ghost stories can work on stage with just atmosphere and pure storytelling (witness the success of The Woman in Black); horror, however, is usually thought to require more stimulation of the senses than just an audience’s imagination. The Horror! The Horror! adds to its challenges by choosing an immersive, promenade format (the audience are taken on a tour through the dilapidated, thin-walled, unrestored upstairs rooms of Wilton’s Music Hall) and throwing in a mix of knowing music hall-style songs and lyrics.
While the show isn’t quite perfect and there are aspects which are still bedding in, this a unique and thrilling production that, above all, successfully balances its elements of Gothic horror and music hall, combining melodrama and humour with some genuine shocks. Added to this, there is the pleasure of exploring Wilton’s, the world’s last surviving grand music hall building. If you go with friends and dress up it’s the perfect Halloween entertainment; if you are an H.P. Lovecraft fan or a music hall aficionado then it’s not to be missed.
The play is set in 1904; the audience have been specially invited to an east London music hall in order to witness rehearsals and meet the performers. There are four separate stories (five if you count whatever actually happened to Mr Merrick’s Miraculous Performing Puppies) which unfold as we are led around the labyrinth of upstairs rooms. The fact that something very odd is going on emerges slowly through the narrative that links these stories together. The promenade element of the production is still developing and while Ben Goffe’s sprightly Mr Barber and Tom Richard’s only-too-anxious-to-please theatrical manager, Mr Brownlow, make a brave stab at keeping the audience occupied, these linking sections could be tighter in order to maintain the unnerving atmosphere.
In the first section we meet Alicia Bennett’s sparkling Sally Summerhill and Kate Quinn’s chatty Nancy Quick, a couple of vivacious Victorian show-girls in the Marie Lloyd model, who perform some neat quips and a pointed song about what a working-class girl might end up losing if she gets too friendly with the fans. Jeffrey Mayhew’s songs and lyrics are a delight throughout the production and there are elements of Edgar Allan Poe in the two ladies’ drÃ´le puppet show.
We next meet Tim Barton’s gruff Yorkshire magician who is having a few problems with his young Scottish assistant magician, Eric Macleane (played by James Utechin), and his Chinese female assistant, Gloria, played with plenty of verve by Fiona Rene. Oddly they can’t see or interact with the audience, unlike the rest of the performers. Gloria and Eric it seems are planning to run away to join another magician, but then a trick with a disappearing box turns memorably and horribly into something else again as Lovecraft’s universe rears a tentacled appendage.
Next up Jonathan Kemp performs a memorable monologue as comedian, Mr Babbage, channelling the ‘cheeky chappie’ persona of Max Miller and combining charm with risquÃ© jokes; it is only at the end that we learn what really happened to his former partner, Mr Barton, ‘the one with the funny face’.
The production’s musical finale, combining song with something altogether more grisly, sees the full narrative unveiled in a spectacle that manages to be gruesome and blackly funny all at the same time, like a home grown Little Shop of Horrors. Cthulhu would be chortling.