National Theatre (Lyttelton), London SE1
Opened 19 May, 2005

Theatre Of Blood is a great cult Brit-horror film from 1973: an embittered Shakespearean actor murders the critics who’d refused him an award, one by one and in appropriate dramatic styles.  Phelim McDermott is the director behind the terrific Shockheaded Peter “junk opera” a few years ago, and numerous other inventive theatrical pieces. And Jim Broadbent is simply a superb actor.  It ought to be a sensational recipe...

McDermott and co have taken their cue from the film’s title, and turned it into a gory melodrama, played beneath a tatty Victorian theatre arch in the usually unfussy space of the Lyttelton.  There are some nice illusions, too (designed by the stalwart Paul Kieve), as people get electrocuted or drowned in a wine barrel, just for a change.  It’s the kind of delighted grotesquerie that the Improbable company do so well.

People enjoy seeing critics bashed, and we’re used to being caricatured in this fashion – we can take it on the chin.  Indeed, much of the laughter was coming from the critics’ seats; one especially savage line even got applause from us.  And, even though it’s set in the ‘70s, you can spot nudges at current scribes – though who the fat, hairy one with the dubious taste for student actresses is meant to be, I’ve no idea. Ahem...

So much thought and care have gone into this show, and it’s often such fun, that I feel quite guilty pointing out its several failings. But the show is undeniably a mixed bag: wildly erratic.  Broadbent overacts terribly. He’s meant to, of course, but this is too much.  In the film, Vincent Price was a prime ham; Broadbent is the whole piggery, and from downwind. It’s often immense fun, but it robs him of credibility.

It was a smart decision to confine all the action to one derelict theatre, but in the second half that sense of place begins to drift more than a little.  It vanishes altogether when the lights come up on the Lyttelton itself, as the mad actor Lionheart goes into a rant about the evils of subsidised theatre.  This halts the action for some minutes, just so the National can score a few smugness points. It’s a dreadful move.

Mark Lockyer is oddly restrained as the hero; Rachael Stirling, as Lionheart’s enigmatic daughter, is herself the daughter of Diana Rigg, who played the same role in the film. (Confused?)  Joby Talbot’s score is as swirling and sinister as you’d expect from the composer for the League of Gentlemen.  But for every time this show hits the bull’s eye, there’s another arrow that bounces off. And that’s a tragedy.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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