Noel Coward at the Grand Guignol

I was in London yesterday to visit the BFI, so decided to make a full day of it by going to the theatre. I was tempted to try War Horse at the National, which has had great reviews – but, to be honest, although the puppetry sounds brilliant, the play sounds a bit too well-meaning for me.

So instead I thought I’d try out the Terror Season at Southwark. This is in part a homage to the Grand Guignol seasons at the Little Theatre in London in the 1920s, a post-war phenomenon which I keep on finding mentions of in interesting contexts. There’s a new book about it coming in November.

The evening was in two halves. the first half looked back to the twenties; the second was modern work. The great find was The Better Half, a short play that Noel Coward wrote for the Little Theatre season in 1922. It is very early Coward – a year before his huge success with The Vortex. It’s rather good, though. Alice is immensely fed up with her preachy husband David, who prides himself on his his compassionate understanding – “He’s big about everything.he was even big about the war.” To get some reaction from him, she confesses to a catalogue of sins, which he at first refuses to believe. This angers her – “How dare you believe that I’ve not been unfaithful to you!” – and she keeps attacking him until finally he gives an honest and angry response. She then happily walks out on him, leaving him to her soppy and credulous friend.

It is a good little play, and Alice was played excellently by Federay Holmes, who seems to be an expert in early Coward; she was equally good in The Rat-Trap at the Finborough last year. She has a unique style, conveying intelligent cheekiness, which suits Coward perfectly. I’d like to see her as Amanda in Private Lives.

The second play was another from the twenties, but from the original French Grand Guignol theatre. The Kiss of Death is full-on horror. It begins with a trepanning, and moves on to madness and self-mutilation. Good stuff, though the final amputation wasn’t quite convincing, so elicited giggles rather than screams.

After the interval there were modern plays. Mark Ravenhill’s Ripper was a lazy piece of writing which spoilt an excellent idea with self-indulgence. The basic idea was that the future Edward VII embarrassed the royal family by bringing prostitutes back to the Palace. For the sake of the royal reputation, the prostitutes had to be killed. They were then disembowelled and dumped in the East End, as though a serial killer were on the loose. Queen Victoria herself carried out the gruesome evisceration. A fascinating idea, but the writer couldn’t be bothered to keep the play consistent, and the actors performed it in Carry-On style. I’d like to see it again with a tighter script and maybe with Judi Dench as Queen Victoria.

The next play was a tight little piece about modern soldiers in a war zone, isolated and going mad. Very effective. The last one was Sweetmeat, about the Marquis de Sade writing a play. His play was obscene and perverted, of course – but did that mean it was vile or merely honest? It raised questions about the motives of us, the jolly crowd who had come along to see horror plays, so we finished the evening with a nasty taste in our mouths, which was fair enough.

Recently I read one of the other plays performed in  the Little Theatre’s 1922 season. It’s Progress by St John Ervine, about a meeting between a scientist developing a new super-destructive bomb and a  widow whose son was killed in the war.

He explains how his new weapon will shorten the next war by totally destroying the enemy country in the first few days, but she is horrified by his explanation, because she knows the human cost of war.   They inhabit two distinct emotional and mental worlds, and it ends in violence. I don’t know if it would be sensational enough for the Seasons of Terror crew to consider reviving, but it’s a good little play, and raised imortant questions in 1922


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