In 2014, Jakop Ahlbom’s Lebensraum was one of the most celebrated shows of the London International Mime Festival. At this year’s festival, the visionary director has returned with something totally different. HORROR, which is playing only two nights at the Peacock Theatre, is Ahlbom’s love letter to horror films, a pastiche of classic horror movie tropes, crammed into a breathless – and wordless – 80 minutes. It is scary, funny, bizarre, thrilling, and brilliant.
The bare-bones plot that unites these tropes is somewhat unclear, but it involves a young woman and her two male friends spending the night in a deserted mansion, where they are set upon by the ghosts of an abusive family. At first, the spooky happenings are limited to a few chairs shuffling around and the odd door slamming. Pretty soon, things get a lot more serious, with a series of homages to famous horror films rearing their heads.
A demented woman slithers from a television screen; a zombie bride, drenched in blood, ferociously attacks her terrified groom; and, almost gaining a cheer of recognition from the audience, a possessed girl crawls down a flight of stairs backwards, her head twisted at an impossible angle. I am no aficionado – the last scary film I watched was at a sleepover in 2007 – but I spotted references to The Ring, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project, and more. I imagine that someone with a greater predilection for horror films than me would be wriggling in their seat with delight.
Ahlbom saves the finest moments for the piece’s closing minutes when a superbly choreographed fight scene breaks out. It features blood and guts galore and a real axe being wielded with frightening speed. Subtle it may not be, but it is unutterably riveting nevertheless – simultaneously terrifying and hilarious to watch.
The cast of just eight (Luc van Esch, Yannick Greweldinger, Judith Hazeleger, Silke Hundertmark, Sofieke de Kater, Gwen Langenberg, Thomas van Ouwerkerk, and Reinier Schimmel) all display a tremendous physicality. From comic sequences featuring a man being attacked by his own infected hand, to horrifically distorted women scuttling across the stage, and eerily beautiful dance sequences. The eye is never left wanting.
HORROR is watchable not just for its delectably disturbing content, but also for the sheer inventiveness and imagination behind it. As Ahlbom explained in a post-show discussion, the nature of live performance places limitations on the effects that can be achieved. The thrill of HORROR comes from those limitations being smashed into pieces without the strings being seen. Huge credit must go to designer Douwe Hibma, who, together with Ahlbom, has created a set that is not only teeming with hidden devices, but is an arresting and authentic 1950s period piece as well. Wim Conradi’s eternally evolving original score also deserves mention.
True, the plot is perhaps not as coherent as it should be – there seems to be an underlying comment on domestic violence that struggles to make itself heard – and this does make itself felt over 80 minutes. There are undoubtedly some repetitive lulls before the thrilling, slasher movie conclusion as well. Ahlbom would do well to shave the running time down to an hour and leave everyone wanting more, rather than trying the audience’s patience slightly with that extra 20 minutes. These are but little niggles, and HORROR remains one of the most inventive and pieces of theatre I have ever seen.
HORROR is playing the Peacock Theatre until 26 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see www.sadlerswells.com