Born in 2006, relatively new company Theatre of the Damned’s only prerogative is to explore the potential of horror and suspense in performance. Kiss Goodnight/Crime in a Madhouse interested me instantly as other than The Woman in Black, I had never before witnessed ‘horror theatre’ or ‘thriller theatre’ or anything in between, and so I jumped at the opportunity to catch this Fringe 2010 production with the hopes of being terrified. I even brought back up with me for support.
The two one-act plays that the company choose to present are neat little pocket-plays with simple yet effective twists, both from the Grand Guingol’s repertoire: Kiss Goodnight is a two-hander, whilst Crime in a Madhouse boasts a larger cast of seven. Simon Pennicott plays spurned victim of Kiss Goodnight; previously attacked by his mistress (Laura Steel) with acid and left a bloodied mess of disfigurement and scarring. Pennicott is positioned on stage, face swathed in bandages as we all enter the tiny room. Although I can’t speak for an entire audience, I, and certainly the people either side of me visibly cringe as Petticott gives the instructions for Steel to “remove [his] bandages”. Steel builds impressive suspense in her dragged out unravelling of Henry’s bandages, however as is true with most horror pieces, the anticipation is often far worse than the actuality: make-up artist Donna Griffey has done an admirable job in creating Pennicott’s wounds, but in this case, the text’s description paired with my imagination proved more powerful (for me at least).
Crime in a Madhouse is actually the stronger tale of the two for me as it simultaneously provides a strange mix of dark humour and appalling horror. I also felt that in terms of the themes, there is more offered in Crime in a Madhouse: the various levels of fear provide this play with a further dimension and there is simply more at work. A young girl (Kate Quinn) is trapped in an insane asylum, despite her insistence that she is well and becomes terrified by the strange goings-on during the night. I won’t ruin the climax of the piece, but will express how the company make particularly good use of an otherwise simple stage affect in order to create something visually unsettling.
Between performances the latest video work by Sangam Sharma (Black Mental) is shown, which effortlessly acts to link the two pieces as it deals with both disturbing physical disfigurement and mental aguish. However, technology was clearly not on the company’s side last night and with the television playing games, what I presume had been planned as a slick changeover unfortunately became a bit messy.
Fringe theatre is always challenging – that’s why so many love it; it’s an opportunity to see theatre sometimes a little rough and ragged round the edges, because cast and crew members are required to fill an allotted time with a performance, usually under strict time and space restraints and often in a weird location. Situated above popular hot-spot The Oxford Arms, The Etcetera Theatre is dark, cramped and creaky. It also has a specific musty smell that makes it the perfect venue for an intimate horror. Yet it’s location also provides many challenges: for example, actors’ battle with the downstairs sound system as warblings of The Kooks are belted out and vibrate through the floor, as well as the general din from (by 10.30pm in Camden) rather heavily intoxicated customers. However, the company do well in refusing to let such extraneous factors affect their performance, and thankfully refuse to adapt their delivery to merely compete with the noise levels below.
Horror in theatre is difficult. I once watched a production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted and had to stop myself becoming irritated because when Ian was having his eyes eaten it didn’t look realistic enough for me. The sad thing is, audiences have been desensitised by large-scale film effects, which makes it incredibly difficult for theatre audiences to then feel satisfied with fake blood or prosthetic makeup. Was I terrified beyond all belief? No. However there were points where I genuinely didn’t want to look. The company do well to create an uneasy atmosphere and build suspense effectively, as well as dealing with a translated text that at times appears a little patchy. Overall, I’ll be sure to follow the relatively new group on Twitter as I think that what they’re playing with is essentially a great concept. I’d suggest you do too.
Kiss Goodnight/Crime in a Madhouse was part of The Camden Fringe, to see more shows taking part in this month long festival see the Camden Fringe Website.