'Tis Pity She's a Whore last night as grand guignol, but here's a play that looks back at the theatre that put that phrase into the vocabulary. Carl Grose's comedy Grand Guignol arrives at Southwark Playhouse from Plymouth in time for Hallowe'en, and despite being played for laughs rather than scares, comes with enough gore and splatter to live up to the name. It's the early days of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, and impresario Max Maurey (Andy Williams) has scored a hit with his formula: An evening of short horror plays, each crammed with madness and violence, and invariably culminating in gory murder and dismemberment. Lead actors Mlle Maxa (Emily Raymond) and Paulais (Robert Portal) have become stars, and the pressure is on writer Andre De Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent) to come up with even bigger extremes for the next season.
Psychiatrist Dr Binet (Matthew Pearson) is fascinated with how the playwright delves into darkness, and as he psychoanalyses him, De Lorde confronts demons in his past that turn his stories ever darker, and more bloodthirstily innovative.
The horror isn't limited to the stage though, as the back streets of Montmartre are being stalked by a killer who leaves mysterious sigils carved into his victims' bodies. While the theatre finds fans in princes and commoners alike, the critics are keen to blame the murders on the Grand Guignol's influence, and shut it down. So Grose's play works as a satire of critics in general, and in particular those who'd blame art for all society's problems, as well as a silly romp.
But "silly romp" is definitely the main thing going on here, and director Simon Stokes wrings as many laughs as he does puddles of blood from the gory stories. It's probably best not to try to make too much sense of the plot, as De Lorde's psychoanalysis and his plays start to blur into each other, but the play is gleefully theatrical, acknowledging that the theatre attracts some pretty extreme characters. The cast throw themselves into the fun - Portal's Paulais starts as hammy actor and gradually the hamminess becomes who he is; it makes a nice contrast with Paul Chequer's Ratineau, the stage manager and inventor of the bloody stage illusions, with his businesslike wandering around with disembodied limbs.
If there's one thing I'd criticise about Grand Guignol is that it never actually turns the comedy into chills - I thought it might pull the rug out from under the audience's laughter like The Woman in Black does, but apart from the increasingly grisly sights it doesn't really go for actual scares*. But what it does it does with gusto, and Alex Doidge-Green's set is lovely - not just the proscenium arch that's been built into The Large, but a section that extends out into the audience and comes to life with the appearance of Edgar Allan Poe's ghost. The latter's costume has one of the best visual gags of the show, while the final reveal about the demonic sigils on the corpses has to rank as one of my favourite punchlines of the year.
Grand Guignol by Carl Grose is booking until the 22nd of November at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.
*Vanessa did feel ill after the final bloodbath and had to run out during the curtain call for some air, but before the cast get too pleased with their ability to scare people I should point out this is a woman afraid of chocolate buttons, so it doesn't take much. Anyway I think it was the eye-gouging that did it, she's still not recovered from Rupert Goold's King Lear.