Inspiring the fear of hell in your audience is a tricky task to pull off, as the multitude of dodgy films that flourish around Halloween shows. They promise so much but fail spectacularly when the monsters/villainous deeds/fake blood surface.
Thankfully, surprisingly, Revenge of the Grand Guignol at The Courtyard Theatre in hipster-haunt Hoxton is a foursome of genuinely frightening short plays. It’s the brainchild of Theatre of the Damned, a company committed to resurrecting the bloody, violent “Grand Guignol” style of horror theatre first pioneered in late 19th century in Paris, (so the programme notes point out).
First up is The Laboratory of Hallucinations, a sucker punch of gruesome melodrama where unsavoury doctor, Von Baildon, experiments on cancer patients for the “good of science” – but there’s nothing good about his intentions as the frazzled, simmering distress of excellent Emma-Jane Martin, who plays his terrified wife, reveals. The mad doc himself is slightly overplayed by a shock-haired, bespectacled Ian Champion although this is swiftly forgiven as we enter the lab and the grimace-inducing snippets of lifelike surgery begin.
Nerves thoroughly zapped – like the X-rayed, lobotomised victims we’ve just watched – we move on to As Ye Sow, a subtler, modern-day short penned by co-founder of the company Stewart Pringle. Jeffrey Mayhew is spot-on as the troubled pensioner with a terrible secret past who can’t remember what time it is but can’t forget what happened to his missing wife.
Keeping with the modern setting, Hero follows a welcome release of tension at the interval. Written by other company co-founder TS Richards, it seems a bit of a let down after a gripping first half, relying on Mafia references to fuel the tension as student Jack (James Utechin) is forced to watch unspeakable acts upon his girlfriend in Russia via webcam.
Sinister stylistic prowess prevails with The Blind Women, where three blind ladies work on a 40’s factory line making bullets for the war effort. Evoking the same oddness found in Jean Pierre Jeunet’s and Marc Caro’s dystopian fantasy The City of Lost Children, the characters’ blacked out glasses and khaki smocks eerily complement the spine-tingling whirr of industrial machinery. When sighted worker Ena (Kate Quinn) joins bitter Greta (a terrifying Scarlet Sweeney) and her colleagues, that grinding sound alone tells you real nastiness is in store.
Technically excellent, with great sound design and a creepy, dilapidated set, Revenge of the Grand Guignol is like The Woman In Black with a spattering of onstage gore; it’s clever and well-pitched drama that hits you where it hurts: the nerves and the pit of your stomach.