Phelim McDermott &Lee Simpson
Even the idea is enough to bring a smile to your face: a stage version of the 1973 MGM movie Theatre Of Blood, a late night horror favourite where a Shakespearean actor, driven to distraction by bad notices, dispatches his critics in the manner of the Bards most bloody and memorable deaths. Its amazing it hasnt been done before now really and, fortunately, Improbable’s wickedly inventive production at the National is every bit as good as one could hope.
Like many cult films Theatre Of Blood was actually a pretty uneven affair, and Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson have improved on it considerably, setting the action in a magnificent crumbling Victorian theatre – a gloriously atmospheric set by Rae Smith. The seven critics who find themselves lured to this unpromising place almost immediately begin to meet messy ends; the woman from the Guardian is impaled by spears, the man from the Standard finds himself minus a pound of flesh at the hands of a victorious Shylock.
Jim Broadbent takes on the Vincent Price role with relish. As the demented thesp, Edward Lionheart, his performance sends up old-style stage acting as he leaps from one play to the next, giving us a hunched and nasal Richard III, a blustering Achilles from Troilus and Cressida. Broadbents voice is perfect for the part, rich and sonorous, and he over-enunciates with considerable style. Rachel Stirling is equally strong as Lionheart’s daughter Miranda, and the actors playing the critics revel in their various stereotypes, particularly Mark Lockyer as the most resourceful of the bunch and Bette Bourne as the fey, quipping critic from the Sunday Times, trailing a pair of snow-white poodles. The ‘chorus of tramps’ who aid Lionheart in his murderous quest are also worthy of mention; theyre responsible for numerous inventive little moments that enliven the production considerably, particularly in a street scene where Bourne flees the theatre in a taxi.
McDermott and Simpson have wisely chosen to retain the film’s early seventies setting, 1973 crucially being the year that the National Theatre was constructed. The new concrete edifice on the South Bank comes in for much good-humoured stick throughout the play and is the focus of Lionhearts final lament for a time when theatre was all about greasepaint and entertainment, before the Oxford graduates in their turtleneck jumpers moved in and someone decided that “theatre was good for you.” Though this speech is as passionate in tone as it is wonky in logic, it contains the same affection for the theatre of another time as Angela Carters Wise Children.
Improbable’s production is a delicious conflation of old fashioned stage magic and modern techniques – with lashings of blood and gore thrown in for good measure. Its camp and mischievous and grotesque and over the top but you wouldnt want it any other way. I was fortunate to be part of an audience made up of a good many of the major critics and the laughs were probably all the louder for that reason. In this sense the play is very insular in its outlook, the only relationship that matters the one between the critic and the player; Theatre of Blood is a case of theatre turning in on itself, but in the most enjoyable and inventive way possible.