Part of the Camden Fringe 2014
Before you read any further, it should be made abundantly clear to you that it is the aim of this review to try to persuade as many people as possible (for their own benefit) to go and see The Gentlemen of Horror. Which might be a bit difficult, as its current run at the Phoenix Artist Club (just off Charing Cross Road in London) comes to an end on 07th August.
The Camden Fringe production chronicles, via a series of five conversations, the friendship between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, from its inception, through to its latter stages, around the time Cushing was diagnosed with the prostate cancer which would eventually kill him.
Cleverly, each of the conversations takes place on the set of a different film, giving a nice extra dimension to the chronology of the piece. Scene one takes place during filming of The Curse of Frankenstein (Cushing and Lee’s first real collaboration), with Cushing one of the most famous people in Britain and Lee a complete unknown. Cushing is accommodating and magnanimous, despite his fame, whilst Lee is an awkward and stiff ex-spy, who shows glimpses of a sharp sense of humour as he becomes more at ease with Cushing’s company.
As the play moves on, the characters and their friendship develop with age, Cushing eventually becoming a nervous old man, mourning the death of his beloved wife, Helene (“I’m no longer a romantic lead”), whilst Lee grows ever more disillusioned with the limitations of a horror genre which he finds distasteful and never really wanted to be a part of.
James Goss’ thoughtful script brings to life the nuances of the evolving friendship and has plenty of humorous touches along the way, including a topical Jimmy Saville joke, which takes the edge off a particularly sad exchange. Together with Kate Webster’s light handed and empathetic direction, this gives the actors something to really work with and, as a cast of two in a series of five dialogues, work they do. And herein lies the strength of the current production.
Although the two leads, Matthew Woodcock (Cushing) and William McGeough (Lee) bear little physical resemblance to their characters, they bring them to life in a fun and engaging manner. Woodcock stumbles over his words on a couple of occasions during this performance, but such is the strength of his (and McGeough’s) performance, that there is no detrimental effect to the whole.
At around an hour-long, The Gentlemen of Horror doesn’t outstay its welcome and, rather than spending the final minutes wishing for some respite for their backsides, the audience are left yearning for more. The use of audio from lurid Hammer trailers in between scenes serves not only as a playful addition to the atmosphere, but also provides an interesting juxtaposition against the polite and mild personalities of the two men who possibly did the most to make those movies so popular. As the world of horror changes in the 70s and 80s, those personalities start to be alienated even further from their genre; to paraphrase one of Lee’s lines, “Have you seen what they’re doing in America? Horror’s no place for gentlemen anymore.”
If you can get down this week, please do; the Phoenix Artists’ Club is an amazing space, intimate and cosy, in the depths of the basement under the Phoenix Theatre. The gents’ is under one of those thick glass squares in the pavement and, as the world passes overhead, it gives you a real sense of being hidden away.
But it doesn’t matter where you see it, because I suspect The Gentlemen of Horror will be brilliant in any venue.
Show taking place at The Phoenix Artist Club
1 Phoenix Street
off Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 8BU
Sat 2 August 2014 1:00pm
Sun 3 August 2014 3:00pm
Mon 4 August 2014 9:00pm
Tue 5 August 2014 9:00pm
Wed 6 August 2014 9:00pm
Thu 7 August 2014 9:00pm
Book tickets via www.camdenfringe.com