“I know what you’re thinking, you’ve seen it all before…”
Much like we all carry our own sense of humour with us, we all too have our own individual fears and dreads. Which means we don’t all find the same things funny (I barely laughed in One Man, Two Guvnors for example) and, as Hallowe’en fast approaches, it makes it difficult to guarantee that something is scary for everyone. A proliferation of shows across London are all determined to send shivers down our spine, but none can have been so initially successful as Theatre of the Damned’s The Horror! The Horror! which sold out its run at Wilton’s Music Hall before it had even started.
As the main hall is being renovated, this Victorian-era promenade show takes place in the shadowy spaces and ramshackle rooms upstairs at Wilton’s and takes the form of a sneak preview of the new season of work from A.S. Brownlow & Company, a group of performers whose acts have all taken something of a gruesome turn. From saucy singers provoking mysterious men to vengeful magicians bitterly resisting the arrival of the future, a cabaret of the grisly and ghastly emerges from the ghosts of the past. And there are puppies. Oh, the puppies.
With a series of perfectly judged songs by Jeffrey Mayhew which conjure the spirits of performances past in this most unique of historical venues, a vibrant music hall atmosphere is set right from the start with pre-show entertainment taking place in the bar. And Stewart Pringle’s book occupies similar terrain, augmenting the turns that we see with snippets of personal history, suggesting the difficulties and frustrations that marked the lives of such performers, touring the country to earn their living.
The opening sequence is the strongest, marrying all the elements of the production excellently, but the logistics of the evening preclude too much scariness ever building up. The eeriness that is cleverly evoked by Tom Richards’ MCing as Brownlow and Ben Goffe’s steward Baker before each scene unfortunately has too much time to dissipate as we’re marshalled from room to room, from thrill to spill, the noise from the working bar below not really helping (though at the same time, it feels churlish to deny Wilton’s the profits) to maintain the ambience. And the length of the vignettes is a shade too protracted given the promenading, proceedings not always immediately engaging and sometimes taking a little too long before their shocking climaxes.
An element of this has to come from the audience though, a willingness to be complicit in soul-chilling shenanigans and the performers face a new challenge with every group in trying to figure out its dynamics. I’m admittedly a bit of a sceptic when it comes to horror – it takes little girl ghosts and/or puppets to freak me out – and so The Horror! The Horror! didn’t really connect to what I find scary. But it is atmospheric and undoubtedly strongly performed – Alicia Bennett and Kate Quinn’s singers are excellent and James Utechin and Fiona Rene build up a convincing chemistry as a pair of would-be elopers – and the way that some of the shocks unfold has a genuinely creepy power.