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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Theatre of Blood
by Lizzie Loveridge

When one's father comes back from the dead as an avenging Thespian Angel of Death, it makes one think.
--- Miranda Lionheart
Theatre of Blood
Jim Broadbent as Edward Lionheart
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
What a titillating experience! Being in the audience as a theatre critic when all around one's fellow critics are being bumped off by a vengeful actor. It isn't only the frisson of excitement, the dicing with death should your critic chance to write a less than positive review that makes it an exciting night in the theatre. Just think of the dream employment opportunities as six major papers lose their principal theatre critic!

In a collaboration between the National Theatre and Improbable, Vincent Price's 1973 film Theatre of Blood has been recreated for the stage with the incomparable Jim Broadbent in the lead role of avenging thespian, Edward Lionheart. In a neat " running in families" touch, Diana Rigg's daughter Rachael Stirling plays the role of Lionheart's daughter Miranda, the one her mother created in the film. We are told that Theatre of Blood was Vincent Price's own personal favourite of all of his films, maybe because he was given the chance to play Shylock and Richard III? Director and joint writer of Theatre of Blood, Phelim McDermott, (with Julian Crouch) brought us the hit Shockheaded Peter.

Set in a derelict London theatre in 1973, seven theatre critics have been lured there on a variety of pretexts. Notable among them are Michael Meridew of The Sunday Times (Bette Bourne) who takes his twin white miniature poodles (Gwendolen and Cecily) everywhere with him, Peter Devlin of The Times (Mark Lockyer) and Chloe Moon of the Observer (Sally Dexter). With a company of derelicts, Edward Lionheart recreates a scene from Shakespeare's plays with a particularly dire and apposite end for each maligning critic. Each murder has been designed to accentuate that critic's weakness, drowning in alcohol for the toper, frying at the hairdresser for the fashionable and a gourmet meal for the gourmand.

What follows is amusing with plenty of references and in jokes for the theatre gossip cognoscenti. In a parallel with the real critic Ken Tynan, the critic of the Times, Peter Devlin (Mark Lockyer) is applying for a job at the National Theatre along with the influx of Oxbridge bright young things. This is the generation which will ultimately take theatre control away from the likes of Lionheart. Paralleling the manipulative, magician role of Prospero, Lionheart uses lines from The Tempest to link the scenes and, of course, his daughter is called Miranda. Although Theatre of Blood is never truly spine tingling, never really scary, there are scenes which are gruesome and unpleasant. It is rather like a pantomime for adults. Paul Kieve, the illusionist was roped in to make the murders look authentic and there has been no expense spared on the volume of stage blood used nightly.

Jim Broadbent's Edward Lionheart is a really ham actor, not just old fashioned but downright bad. The first murder sees a critic stabbed on the steps of the Capitol in a scene from Julius Caesar, the second has a female critic skewered as critic kebab in a scene out of Troilus and Cressida. In Lionheart's Merchant of Venice this merchant is not going to be put off by Portia's mercy speech, he will carve the pound of flesh from the critic's chest and hang the consequences.

Broadbent adapts to the many roles, from long haired hippie hairdresser to police inspector to Shylock, not easy when you remember that he always has to be Lionheart playing these other characters. He struts around in top hat and redlined cloak camping up the action, his makeup as overstated as his acting. The troupe of critics, some in dirty macs, display pomposity and vanity. They try to wriggle out of their vitriolic reviews but some of their lines are admirably memorable, like the female critic who described Lionheart as having "stage absence". A blue rinsed, loud suited, mincing Bette Bourne is of course wonderful as the poodle carrying representative of The Sunday Times but the poodles are real scene stealers. I couldn't take my eyes off them!

The murders convince and leave us asking how did they do that as one is barbecued under the hair drier and another drowned in the butt of Malmsey. Broadbent and Lockyer duel thrillingly. There is eerie music and dramatic lighting and loads of props. The sets are rather good, recreating a derelict theatre but the whole leaves me questioning the validity of such expense for a play which is essentially frivolous.

Theatre of Blood
Written by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott
Directed by Phelim McDermott

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Mark Lockyer, Sally Dexter, Bette Bourne
With: Rachael Stirling, Paul Bentall, Hayley Carmichael, Steve Steen, Tim McMullan, Gerard Bell, Stephen Harper, Nick Haverson, Rachael Spence, Victoria Willing, Edward Woodall
Design: Rae Smith
Associate Director: Lee Simpson
Illusionist: Paul Kieve
Lighting: Colin Grenfell
Sound: Gareth Fry
Music: Jody Talbot
Fight Director: Terry King
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0208 452 3000
Booking to 27th August 2005.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th May performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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