Based on the 1973 film of the same title starring Vincent Price and a whole host of famous actors of the day, this version of ‘Theatre of Blood’ has been reworked by the Improbable theatre company. Unlike the celluloid original – where the action was set in numerous venues across London – Improbable have located all the action inside a run-down derelict theatre, meticulously and impressively designed by Rae Smith.
The plot is essentially quite simple. An actor-manager, Edward Lionheart, who only ‘does’ Shakespeare, is thwarted by a group of theatre critics in his desire to win the ‘actor of the year’ award. Distraught, he attempts suicide but is saved from a watery demise in the Thames by a group of vagrants. Having recovered, he decides to take revenge for years of bad notices (for example: “Edward Lionheart is the only actor I’ve seen with stage absence”), and the ignominy of not winning the coveted award. So he invites the 7 newspaper critics to the decaying theatrical venue using irresistible lures that pander to their various foibles. Once in his clutches, Lionheart creates scenarios loosely based on various Shakespearian plays (Julius Caesar, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus etc) to act out his vengeance abetted by his zombie-like gang of vagrants. During these scenes, a considerable amount of stage blood is sprayed liberally around as the critics meet their fate – well, the play is descriptively titled!
This is an immensely enjoyable, entertaining and highly amusing production that works on many different and innovative levels. Jim Broadbent in the lead role as Edward Lionheart is quite simply superb. It’s a highly challenging if not exhausting role because of the numerous costume changes and entrances, and the style of acting required. He epitomises the old style, larger than life and some would say ‘over the top’ actors of the mid 20th century. Broadbent’s grand, rounded and exaggerated intonation and that kind of unreal, ‘large’ overacting (often the target of satire and comedy) are brilliantly combined in immaculate delivery.
But there’s also good supporting playing from the rest of the ensemble including the critics and vagrants. In particular, Bette Bourne was deliciously camp as the Sunday Times critic, complete with an enormously loud red checked suit, and his ‘babies’ – 2 white French poodles – in tow.
In a sense, basing the production in one setting gave the director, Phelim McDermott, and his team a bit of a headache because some of the exposition is set in locations outside the theatre itself. And the audience has to be convinced that the critics can be trapped in the theatre while awaiting their ‘executions’. All this could make the play seem somewhat contrived and disjointed, but it seemed to work if only because in the theatre one can recreate almost anything to tell a story, and in a sense, that is what Lionheart is doing. And of course, since the critics are ‘front of house’ people, there’s an obvious analogy that they are ‘lost’ in the ‘behind the scenes’ world which actors inhabit. In any case, if we’re being asked to believe that an actor would murder 7 people because of their writing, we can believe almost anything.
Although the play references numerous Shakespearian plays, it won’t matter if you’re not a Shakespearian aficionado because the play will still be hugely enjoyable. However, if you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s more gruesome plays, you’ll be able to anticipate the devices that Lionheart uses to despatch the critics and appreciate the dialogue that accompanies them. But there are also plenty of surprises in store – based on intriguing illusions by Paul Kieve – which will have you giggling for some time after the show.
Part comedy and part thriller with a huge dollop of horror, it’s hard to categorise ‘Theatre of Blood’ satisfactorily or even precisely. However, it really doesn’t matter, because it’s a kind of grotesque and unashamedly camp spoof that’s simply great fun.
(Production photo by Keith Pattison)
What other critics had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "An intelligent, larky evening that offers, in more senses than one, a bloody good show." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "However enjoyable it is, there is also something hermetic about the show's preoccupation with theatre.." SUSANNAH CLAPP for THE OBSERVER says, "Giddily enjoyable." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "..I also found Broadbent’s endlessly confused quotations from the Shakespeare canon a bit wearisome. But he blends ersatz Irving — Sir Henry not Mr Wardle — and flatulent Wolfit with wonderfully hammy panache."