London based company Theatre of the Damned present Grand Guignol a set of three grisly plays, based on the translated scripts of 1920’s French playwright, André de Lord. The show takes its name from Le Grand-Guignol, a 19th century Parisian theatre which specialised in what it’s founders referred to as “naturalistic horror”. For a brief period between the World Wars the Grand Guignol genre became popular in England. Now, fresh from their successful run at the Camden Fringe, Theatre of the Damned attempt to bring de Lord’s gruesome trademark style back into favour with the people of London.
Unfortunately this production never really comes together. Stuck somewhere between absurdity, horror and farce, the show struggles to gain a coherent reaction from its audience who, unsure whether the scenes are supposed to be funny or genuinely scary, spend a lot of time giggling into their handbags. The plays themselves are extremely silly. Camp-gothic tales about evil nuns and clanking chains may have washed with the mid war generation, but I for one can’t look upon a limping, one-eyed ghoul without expecting her to break into The Time Warp.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this show is the sheer amount of people that are in it. The cast number sixteen in total, despite the fact that the theatre itself (which sits cosily above the Oxford Arms in Camden) seats only 40 and the script rarely calls for more than four people to be on stage at one time. The huge ensemble varies in ability and this, coupled with the enthusiastic use of the smoke machine, gives the production the feeling of a parish am-dram. I half expected the whole thing to come to a close with a church collection and an invitation to the town hall Caleigh.
All this said I can’t deny that I did quite enjoy the show. There’s something a little bit lovely about going to see an absurd piece of histrionic horror performed above a little pub on a snowy winter’s eve. The torture scenes were hilarious, the staging so hammy it ought to have been served with mustard; but the energy and conviction of the actors never faltered, and the special effects were gory enough to ensure that de Lord’s absurd narratives were, if not scary, then at least entertaining.
Full to the brim with tolling bells, high pitched screams and grisly tales of war, Grand Guignol is as camp as Christmas – but hell, it is Christmas, so go along and enjoy!
Grand Guignol is running at the Etcetera Theatre until the 12th of December. For more information and to book tickets see Theatre of the Damned’s website here.