London's fringe is a mine filled with gems. Some of them don't manage to sparkle quite as much as one would like, but most have a lustre that any jeweller would be delighted to have adorning their shop window. In spite of it's title – perhaps giving the impression of a second-rate B movie with fake blood and ghouls dripping with lurid greasepaint – 'Hamlet House of Horror' is a real gem. And on a scale which shifts rapidly upwards, this is a gem of the highest quality, a multi-faceted theatrical diamond, which sets a bar so high other companies may well be facing their own horrors in trying to meet the standard this production sets.
Adapted and directed by Chris Barton with additional material by Katy Bulmer, this show is by Westminister Theatre Company who have already met with some acclaim for their production in South Africa. The cast is young. Louis Lunts who plays Hamlet is just 19 and about to go off to uni. But what the acting team lacks in experience, they more than make up for in exuberance, energy, commitment and obvious talent. Their acting ability is considerable and backed-up with enormous confidence. What's most striking is that they're prepared to take huge risks, all of which pay-off in spades. Essentially, there's a 'Rocky Horror meets Shakespeare' feel about the whole enterprise, particularly revealed in Dee Shulman's excellent make-up and hair design. But don't be duped into thinking this is just another revamping of a classic. It's far more than that because it remains faithful to the original while incorporating an imaginative layer which makes it highly relevant and appealing for a modern audience.
Louis Lunts plays Prince Hamlet with a manic vitality that is refreshingly inspirational. It's a charismatic and compelling performance that works brilliantly because Louis Lunts has managed to inhabit this character in an edgy kind of way that is at once both comedic and unnerving. It certainly gave me a fresh insight into what really makes Hamlet tick. Contrasting with Lunts' Hamlet is George Rowell's dastardly but well-controlled Claudius, and Max Barton produces a very fine performance as the ghost of the old King atop a pile of writhing corpses, eerily illuminated by a hand-held torch. More than anything, the production is a cohesive team effort – there's quite exceptional support from the entire cast. I was particularly impressed with the way the cast used the small space – just about big enough to swing the proverbial cat in - to such good effect, and culminating in a fearsomely realistic fight scene near the end.
Of course, there will be purists who miss the completeness of the original. Though cutting often takes place with Hamlet anyway, here the cuts are pretty savage. Even with the addition of some melodic and well-written songs, the running time is down from the customary 3 hours, to less than 2. But it really doesn't affect the overall impact of the play as the plot has been preserved, is still completely understandable and the power of Shakespeare's story and words are still amply in evidence.
Chris Barton's dynamic direction empowers the actors to create a vital and professional ensemble. And it also embodies a strong, innovative vision which results in a show that really feels fresh and invigorating. And apart from adapting and directing the piece, Barton also had a hand in writing the excellent songs and music too.
I suppose some people may try to write this show off as just a youthfully exuberant modernisation. But they would be wrong to do so because it is fantastically enjoyable and entertaining while honouring and reinvigorating the original. It deserves huge success via a far wider audience than it is likely to get in this short run. I rarely feel compelled to revisit a show, but I would happily sit through 'Hamlet House Of Horror' several times over. Magnetic, energising theatre and one of the best shows I've seen in some time.