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Revenge of the Grand Guignol

Henri Bauche, André de Lorde, Stewart Pringle, and T.S. Richards
Theatre of the Damned
Part of the London Horror Festival Courtyard Theatre, King's Cross
(2011)

Revenge of the Grand Guignol publicity image

Revenge of the Grand Guignol is the centrepiece of the Courtyard Theatre's London Horror Festival, the only play running for the whole of the festival's four weeks. It itself has four stories, each of about equal length, ranging from gruesome mad scientists to dark family secrets, breaking out in the night... Like Frankenstein's monster, all the pieces have spirit and a good sense of scary fun but, again like Frankenstein's monster, nothing quite fits.

Without wanting to give away too many details and ruin the scare, the first show is about an evil scientist doing evil experiments; the second about a father in a nursing home, haunted by his past; the third about a long distance relationship where the webcam talks take a cruel turn; the last about a factory during the Second World War where a new employee faces a vicious power struggle with the older, blind, workers.

There's no real need for all the stories to fit together as such, any more than campfire stories need to create a coherent whole, and it's refreshing for each piece to come, have its moment and then we move onto a complete different mood and story. Plus it's daring to just have short pieces and expect the suspense to be built up each time.

That said, there are some real leaps in tone and atmosphere. The worst offender is the third story, which has 'snappy', slightly too pleased with itself sitcom-y dialogue and clearly wasn't written to be a horror story, despite the grim (cheap) ending. Unfortunate because this is a well written and well acted piece generally, with a good number of laughs and a great performance from Kes Gil Martin who makes a prerecorded webcam talk seem like it's happening in real time.

Moreover, all of the four separate stories feel under-polished, perhaps because of the over-ambition of attempting to have four different, complete pieces. A case in point is the first story about the mad doctor. The writing here was clunky, saved by some creative performances which managed to give a depth to the words that otherwise wouldn't have been there. Despite some nice build-up, with writing appearing on the walls and a genuinely tense moment looking through the dark with only a flashlight, it didn't manage to follow through with the gore-filled ending you'd hope for when it's a horror story and someone has a scalpel.

The last story is probably the best of the lot, with a grinding atmosphere of wartime desperation and the eerie backdrop of three blind and batty factory workers. But the last speech (with shout-outs to Hitler) was tacky and the ending overall was rushed.

Revenge of the Grand Guignol is a lot of fun and is really does manage to scare at times, and there's enough variety to suit anyone's tastes. It's just a shame that the stories aren't as strong as they could be.

"Revenge of the Grand Guignol" runs until 27th November

Reviewer: Tobias Chapple