Camden Fringe Review: The Gentlemen of Horror (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

the gentlemen of horrorRating: ****

In A Nutshell:

James Goss’s fusion of trivia and deft wit creates a charming tale of fame and friendship.

Overview

We first join Christopher Lee in a makeshift green room with Peter Cushing in 1957, working on the Hammer Horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein: Lee was Frankenstein’s monster, whilst Cushing was the titular role. From then on, we join them in the back rooms spread across various films, striking up a life-long companionship. But will their friendship last as Cushing’s lot dwindles whilst Lee rises to fame?

Writing

James Goss has had a good career in professional geekery, having looked after the BBC’s Cult website as well as writing Doctor Who audiobooks, other radio plays, and published several Whovian anthologies. But what’s great is that, turning to these two titans of the halcyon days of the British horror B-Movies, he’s managed to combine his wealth of cult trivia with a crystal-tipped but subtle wit to weave an affectionate and endearing narrative. In contriving these imaginary meetings off-set, Goss extrapolates a tale of  their friendship, careers, and families that’s as touching as they are engrossing. Pop in some wonderful pieces of knowing hindsight, and the result is a funny and ultimately charming text of quips, golfing, personal aspirations, and the quiet private lives of two acting behemoths, forming intriguing plot-points out of nuanced fandom.

The only problem is that this piece is ultimately niche. Unless you’re a fan of either Cushing, Lee, or Hammer Horror, some of the impact of the play risks being lost. Thankfully, Goss generally ensures that the characters are properly introduced, as if assuming a certain level of audience ignorance. If viewed as if a piece of fiction, there’s still plenty within the play that establishes Cushing and Lee as rounded characters complete with solid backgrounds. So, even if you haven’t a clue who they are, you still get an easy sense of what’s actually going on as well as the wider cultural significance. But still, those interested in these two characters and the films they starred in and produced will certainly get more out of the show than those who don’t.

Direction and Production

There is little by the way of production here – nothing but a coat rail, a table, and two chairs – as this is actually a play that doesn’t actually need much production at all as it’s the writing that does the talking. However, director Kate Webster does well to garnish the play with nice little touches, such as audio clips from film trailers between scenes to set up the next period the play takes place in. Webster could also have obsessed over trying to replicate the costumes and make-up from the films that both Cushing and Lee represent. For example, Lee’s Frankenstein’s monster mask is replaced by a rag-bag of bandages. Whilst the reference to Lee having to eat through a straw whilst wearing the mask sits a little at odds because of this, it ultimately doesn’t deter from the reference it’s making. It looks far better than instead using some cheap Halloween mask or trying to make do with a poor-man’s replica: better to succeed in evoking than fail in imitating.

In short, Webster has placed enough of a well-founded assurance in Goss’s text and her actors that all she needs to do is embellish a few points and chaperone things along to make this work well, which she does confidently and competently.

Cast

The problem is always going to be how do you capture the immense presence and charismas of Cushing and Lee without being second-rate emulations. The answer is, you can’t. Unfortunately, Matthew Woodcock playing Cushing, and William McGeough playing Lee, seem to be trying a little too hard at the beginning of the play, coming across a little forced: McGeough especially seeming more voice than personality. But quickly both Woodcock and McGeough start to relax and begin to become believable as people rather than trying to be mistaken for Cushing and Lee. Eventually they start to really bounce off a close sense of companionship and chemistry as mere characters, really lifting the text and doing justice to Goss’s writing, making them very sweet and cosy to watch.

Verdict

Hammer Horror fans and film-buffs will really appreciate this enjoyable riff on Cushing and Lee’s off-screen relationship. But even if you’re not endowed with encyclopaedic knowledge of the world of celluloid, this shouldn’t put you off what is otherwise a cheekily delightful and heart-warming play.

The Gentlemen of Horror plays at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 7 August 2014. Tickets are £7.50. To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

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