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Theatre of Blood

Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott, based on the film idea by Stanley Mann and John Kohn and a screenplay by Anthony Greville-Bell
A co-production between the National Theatre and Improbable Theatre
RNT Lyttelton
(2005)

As a critic, a visit to see Theatre of Blood must undoubtedly make you uncomfortable. Disliking it though could well turn out to be fatal.

Almost 35 years ago, this comic horror movie starred Vincent Price as a disenchanted actor, Edward Lionheart, who chose to turn the tables on his critics.

The next time that the Critics' Circle meets to pick their award winners, they might well bear in mind the fates of their fictional predecessors in this stage version of the film. The pompous writers chose a man they regarded as a far finer actor than Lionheart for their top award. They then happily scoffed at the passé actor-manager whose hammy acting is demonstrated with gusto by Jim Broadbent, having a whale of a time.

The seven finest critics of their day, an ugly and unpleasant lot - obviously bearing no resemblance to the real thing - mysteriously meet in a decrepit theatre complete with glorious, collapsing proscenium arch. Each has been lured by greed or vanity to an evening that as one of them says is "so far, so Agatha Christie".

There they meet their deaths through the efforts of the wonderfully awful "avenging, thespian Angel of Death", Mr Lionheart.

His modus operandi is to follow the path of his last unsuccessful Shakespearean season, repeating the goriest deaths from each play with critics as victims. Everyone will have their favourites but the reworking of the Merchant of Venice, where Shylock gets his pound of flesh at long last; and a modernised frying of Joan of Arc from Henry VI take some beating for comic value.

The only powers that can stop the madman from eliminating the whole of the Critics' Circle are his beautiful daughter Miranda and her putative beau (Mark Lockyer), looking as if he has walked straight off the set of The Saint c. 1973, as Peter Devlin of The Times.

As soon as you know that the final scenes will be a perverted replication of King Lear, you guess that prospects for father and daughter are not good.

Jim Broadbent has great fun as the mad actor and Rachael Stirling both looks and sounds uncannily like her mother, Dame Diana Rigg, who was one of the stars of the original film.

Arguably the real stars are the fantastic trio of Bette Bourne as the most precious of critics, and his constant companions, twin white poodles.

The staging is very effective with the derelict theatre beautifully recreated by Rae Smith, working closely with the creators, Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott from Improbable Theatre.

Despite its lengthy Shakespearean monologues and theatrical setting, this homage to bad taste is little more than a bit of light-hearted fun with some extremely enjoyable lines.

As such, it may well delight audiences but some (critics in fear for their lives?) may question whether it has a long-term place on one of the main stages at the Royal National Theatre, an institution that it happily lampoons.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher