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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Theatre of Blood
Lyttelton Theatre       Spring-Summer 2005

The most frustrating evenings in the theatre come not with total flops, but with partially successful productions that you are repeatedly aware could have been so much better.

You may well find much to enjoy in this black comedy, but you will also find far too many moments that just miss the mark.

This is a stage adaptation of the campy 1973 comic horror film in which Vincent Price played a mad actor killing off theatre critics in Shakespearean ways - a Julius Caesar stabbing, a bit of Titus Andronicus cannibalism, and the like.

The adaptation is by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott of the theatre company Improbable, one of a series of recent co-productions (Jerry Springer, Tristan & Yseult, etc.) in which the National Theatre has lent its resources to quirky smaller companies - a practice I applaud enthusiastically, even when the results are less than perfect.

The difficulty with camp is that it really has to be played full out, without any hesitation or lapse of energy, and director Phelim McDermott too often loses his nerve or his focus, letting enough reality slip in to at least temporarily burst the bubble.

The always welcome Jim Broadbent has the Vincent Price role, but for too much of the first act, he is directed to play as simply a bad actor, not a larger-than-life comic monster.

(A side point: the script repeatedly says that his character is not so much a bad actor as a too-old-fashioned one, and it would have given things some complex emotional resonances if we saw that the critics who damned all his performances were actually missing something. But that, of course, would have made it a different play entirely.)

The first couple of murders are rather clumsily staged, and it isn't really until the second act, when Broadbent gets to be Richard III overseeing the drowning of Clarence, a fey hairdresser (don't ask) burning Joan of Arc in Henry VI, and Titus Andronicus serving up some poodle pie that the play really reaches the level of over-the-top fun that it's striving for.

And then, just when things are bubbling along nicely, the authors bring it to a grinding halt by interpolating a long and boring speech for Broadbent's character about the evils of institutionalised establishment theatre in general and the National Theatre in particular. 

Yes, there is a slight frisson in hearing the NT damned within its own walls, but then the NT has a long history of calmly absorbing and co-opting the unthreatening voices of tame in-house radicals (A couple of names undoubtedly spring to your mind). All the life goes out of the play at that point, and it never recovers.

Not much has been done to individualize the victims, except to give a couple of them signature traits (alcoholism, randiness, etc.) that the killer can exploit in taking his vengeance.

Only Bette Bourne, in the Robert Morley role of the poodle-loving queen, generates much comic energy, and Mark Lockyer and Rachael Stirling, as the nearest things the script has to hero and heroine, are just a couple of pretty faces.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Theatre Of Blood - National Theatre 2005
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