With Halloween fast approaching, where better to turn than the Theatre du Grand Guignol, where horror and perversion was once the order of the day. Exeter Alternative Theatre return to Exeter’s Barnfield to present three short plays that give different twists on the style. Performing on 28, 29 and 31 October 2011, this is a rare chance to have a taste of the bizarre and macabre on the local stage.
The evening opened with a clear warning of what we were to experience, and the Barnfield Theatre was the perfect location in one of those rare moments where the presentation made you feel like you were stepping back in time.
The Torture Garden by Pierre Chaine and Andre de Lorde in a translation by Richard J Hand and Michael Wilson was the first chapter of the night, directed by Geoff Nicholson. This production is itself adapted from the 1899 novel by Octave Mirbeau. It is a tale that takes the audience on a boat to China, where a haunted young lady captivates all on the ship on a journey that ends in a mixture of murder and lust. Once the story reaches the mainland, the Westerners find themselves in the middle of political intrigue and double dealing, where torture is not confined to the prison grounds.
For lulling the audience into a false sense of security, John Ormond and Larry Blackshaw are to be commended for performances as Muller and Smithson, two men on the voyage who set the scene splendidly. Together with the Captain of the ship, played by Malcolme Littler, a mystery was established in the form of passenger, Mrs Clara Watson.
Elisabeth Bennett gave a haunting performance as Mrs Watson, as she seduces everything she comes into contact with. Together with Al Wadlan as Jean Marchal, they were a central couple that dragged the audience through murder, sex, madness and physical brutality.
Once off the ship the only calm came from Louis Ravenfield as Han, whose measured menace left you doubting the motivations of everybody, as he encourages Mrs Watson to visit the Torture Garden, despite knowing the effect it will have, then asking her to betray Marchal as she has others in the past.
Highlights included Sarah Prentice as Annie, a girl locked up at Mrs Watson’s behest, with a suggestion she was mad when appearances suggested otherwise. Appearances can be deceptive and Prentice delivers the most horrific breakdown of the night. In terms of horror, Kate Copley’s performance as Ti-Bah set the tone for physical and sexual abuse playing both sides of torture leading to a devastating conclusion.
Lighting and special effects were well handled during scene of graphic abuse. It was uncomfortable viewing, but that’s really the point, and the power of the closing is strengthened by the normality of the opening scenes.
The second chapter of the evening was The Weekend Cottage by Frederick Witney and directed by Jac Bevan. This script came from the 1940s London revival of Grand Guignol, and for the Jolly Lion, was the most effective of the evening’s three offerings.
A four-handed one act play opened with Laura, played by Nicky Crew, preparing for the arrival of her lover for a dirty weekend. Instead she finds Butch and Nobby, played by Mark Chawner and Leigh Steedman, turning up to disrupt her plans and eat the meal she has prepared. As they start to take more and more, events grow more sinister, until Arthur, played by Louis Ravensfield, arrives to find Nobby, rather than Laura, greeting him with a smile.
The piece had a beautifully dressed set, with fine dark comic performances from Chawner and Steedman. In particular, the way Steedman paced the set fiddling with furniture, eating and drinking was a clever distraction from what we knew was going on in the other room. Perfect pace and great characters, with nice use of lighting and sound when weapons were used. Not everyone gets out alive, and you are left wanting to know what happens next.
The final chapter of the night was a home grown affair, written and directed by EAT members Rosie and Midge Mullin, An Eye For An Eye, is the result of a challenge thrown down by the group after their 2010 Grand Guignol presentation. Could somebody within the group create something to add to the 2011 playbill?
A striking opening as a masked figure danced before some lighting that cast a magnificent shadow up to the ceiling of the Barnfield to the sound of African tribal rhythms. Immediately, a new location was again established, with a tone for the mystery and horror behind the third play.
Professor Alistair Rodwell, played by Ben Rodwell, is an anthropologist who has cut short his studies of an African tribe to return to England. One of his team, Tom Sullivan, played by Mike Gilpin, is marrying Rodwell’s daughter Lizzie, played by Elisabeth Bennett. His father insists that she wear her mother’s ring, but at the wedding the provenance of the ring is thrown into question. As Rodwell is taken ill, so Sullivan tries to uncover the truth of the origins of the stone in the ring, wanting to return to the African tribe to complete Rodwell’s studies.
A story of theft, distrust and the supernatural, there are some fine set pieces including a scene of childbirth performed in silhouette, and a few beams of light that cast across Rodwell after he has dug through the walls to try to find the source of the noises that trouble him. Another haunting ending and a frightening conclusion to the evening.
Exeter Alternative Theatre remain a group clear in what they want to achieve and working hard to achieve it. The creativity here is fascinating, and the ability to shock and surprise only grows with each performance. As a celebration of Grand Guignol, this presentation felt like a journey back in time.
For the Jolly Lion this was a welcome break from Agatha Christie and the safe comedies of the amateur world. Happy Halloween.
For more information visit: www.eattheatre.co.uk
Last review from EAT: