Review – Terror 2007, Union Theatre

Sunday 4 November 2007

Phil’s nervous condition prohibits him from watching scary things; in fact he even has to watch Antiques Roadshow from behind the sofa.

So it was left to Andrew to undertake alone a trip to Southwark to the Union Theatre (stroke Snack Bar) to take in Terror 2007, a five play celebration of grand guignol.

Alone, that is, apart from horror film buff and would-be Whinger Neil and Oliver, a German currently being groomed for would-be Whingership.

It was Andrew’s first visit to the Union Theatre and he let rip an audible sigh of relief on arriving: thank heavens that Phil hadn’t come along because whatever horrors were about to be played out on the stage would be nothing compared to enduring the inevitable tantrums about unallocated seating and the sound of the trains rumbling overhead (the theatre is situated in a railway arch).

Anyway, expectations for the evening had been managed down by Andrew who had accidentally read Mountford’s review in The Evening Standard which awarded one star to the “grubby little evening of cheap, schlocky titillation.”

But, umm, well, that’s the point of it, really. And as cheap, schlocky titillation goes it turned out to be a super-entertaining 2 hours 40 minutes of theatre (and how often do the Whingers say that?).

The anthology kicks off with something of a coup – a “lost” play by Noël Coward which was written for the short-lived London Grand Guignol’s 1922 season. The Better Half is a three hander comedy about a woman driven to distraction by her husband’s “bigness” (in the sense of “considerate”, that is) and her attempt to foist him off onto her best friend. It’s an unusual piece – funny as you might expect and probably quite shocking at the time. All agreed that Federay Holmes was excellent and very funny as the central character Alice and we shall be watching out for her name in the future.

Kiss of Death is an original Grand Guignol play from 1929 and has all the hallmarks associated with the term grand guignol. It opens with a doctor drilling into a man’s head and goes on to tell the story of a mysterious visitor who begs the doctor to amputate his hand. Great fun.

Ripper is a new play by Mark Ravenhill in which Queen Victoria is revealed to have an unusual and gruesome solution to keeping under wraps the secrets of her eldest son’s sexual activities. It’s very funny and quite gruesome (one audience member leapt across the stage to another seat to avoid further splattering). Andrew (who always enjoys a pop at the French) particularly enjoyed Victoria’s treatise on the disagreeableness of pleasure “The French have food and wine and song and are to be pitied for it.” Bette Bourne relishes her every line as Queen Victoria and the whole thing fizzled with fun.

After the interval came Guns or Butter by Lucky Kirkwood a downbeat drama about soldiers which did contain a little gore, but setting the play in a war zone in Afghanistan meant that it was overshadowed somewhat by the context.

Finally came Sweetmeat by Darran Ormand, a play about the Marquis de Sade which, well, turned everything back at the audience. Clever.

Well, it was a most stimulating evening and Andrew particularly liked the notion of five short plays in one evening so that if you aren’t particularly enjoying one, you know that it will be over soon. Indeed, he believes this is a sadly overlooked approach to theatre and is thinking of extending his campaign to get variety revived and incorporating grand guignol too.
He was also put in mind of all those marvellous Amicus anthology movies of the seventies. The House That Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and so on (which in turn were presumably inspired by the format of the classic 1945 Ealing film Dead of Night).

Anyway, here’s a clip from one of the best of those Amicus films: If you’ve got 10 minutes to spare, take a look at Joan Collins in the “All Through The House” segment of Tales from the Crypt. You won’t be sorry:

Terror 2007 Runs until 10th November.

Dry footnote

Andrew was amazed at home many blank expressions met his talk about Grand Guignol. Maybe it was his pronounciation, but for those that don’t know, here is “Grand Guignol 101” cobbled together from Wikipedia and GrandGuignol.com:

Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was a theatre in the Pigalle area of Paris at 20 bis, rue Chaptal which, from its opening in 1897 to its closing in 1962, specialized in naturalistic horror shows. The name is often used as a general term for graphic, amoral horror entertainment.

The theatre’s peak was between World War I and World War II when it was frequented by royalty and celebrities in evening dress.

Despite its synonymousness with gore, a typical evening at the Grand Guignol Theatre might consist of five or six short plays, ranging from suspenseful crime dramas to bawdy sex farces. But the staple of the Grand Guignol repertoire was the horror play, which inevitably featured eye-gouging, throat-slashing, acid-throwing, or some other equally grisly climax.

And for a rather mean-spirited undermining of this laudable attempt to recreate Grand Guignol, see Andrew Field’s recent blog post.

4 Responses to “Review – Terror 2007, Union Theatre”

  1. Andrew Field Says:

    Mean spirited…

    Hello Pot, this is the whingers, you’re black…

    I think the Union is a wonderful place, and Lucy Kirkwood is a good friend of mine, and I’m sure I will go along and have a whale of a time swimming in all the tacky, fabulous nonsense.

    However, I think as an attempt at reviving the spirit of Grand Guignol (which it may not be but most people seem to be suggesting it is) it kind of misses the point of what I think that spirit is. But that’s just me.

    Oh, and I would love to see Dame Maggie Smith performing amongst homeless scottish alchoholics. I think she’s missed her calling.


  2. Oh, Andrew, I think you’ve misunderstood. Apologies.

    When we write “mean-spirited” it is not a criticism.

    Re-read it and imagine a tone of admiration in our voices.

  3. Webcowgirl Says:

    Right, then, so which of you will come to the “Pie, Play, and Pint” thing with me November 15th? It’s less than an hour long and includes food and beer for £10 – it looks like a big ol’ winner to me!


  4. Awww, what a lovely invitation Webcowgirl. Regrettably the Whingers will be on a Red Eye flight back from New York.

    But definitely another time!


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