You can hardly blame practitioners for wanting to get even with theatre critics after a bad review. I once ungallantly wrote of a performance by Helena Bonham Carter that "it made one pine to be in the restricted-view seating". She sent me a letter saying, "Do let me know if you have to cover any future production I'm in, and I will make absolutely sure that you are in the restricted-view seating."
The exquisite poise of that riposte is in stark contrast to the strategy of Edward Lionheart, the egregious and outmoded old Shakespearean ham who, furious at being passed over for the Critics' Circle Best Actor award, eliminates the reviewers one by one using the violently gory methods pioneered in the plays of his beloved Bard.
Lionheart first appeared in the 1973 comic horror movie Theatre of Blood, starring Vincent Price as the homicidal thesp and Diana Rigg as his daughter. He now resurfaces with a vengeance in Improbable Theatre's exuberant stage adaptation in the Lyttelton, written by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott (who also directs), and starring Jim Broadbent as Lionheart and Rigg's talented daughter, Rachael Stirling, as his conflicted child.
The material is far more at home in a theatre, and the adaptors get the maximum mileage out of this by giving it a different framework. Lionheart is now a deranged version of Prospero, and the critics are lured to a defunct Frank Matcham theatre (the fantastical set is by Rae Smith), which functions as the equivalent of the magical island where he puts them at his mercy.
Part of the production's pleasure comes from the fun it has turning up the temperature on the ghoulish comedy and satirising the barking self-centredness of certain critics. When, à la Titus Andronicus, Bette Bourne's camp hack is fed his pet poodles, it's through a tube attached to a giant mincing machine, and his stomach swells as if from grotesque, speeded-up pregnancy. It's certainly a new angle on "dog eat dog".
Occasionally, I felt a trick had been missed. Confronted with the corpse of a colleague, most critics would think: who will get his or her job, and how will this affect the game of musical chairs? This version, though, develops into a fascinating debate between Lionheart and the trendy polo-necked critic (Mark Lockyer), who (this is 1973) has just been recruited to become literary manager of the new National Theatre on the South Bank.
That this is the venue in which we are sitting imparts an added frisson to a dispute in which Lionheart decries the National as a concrete mausoleum dedicated to the values of state-subsidised Oxbridge directors. Whether his own commercial actor-manager tradition was a richer alternative is left a moot point in an intelligent, larky evening that is, in more senses than one, a bloody good show.
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