Abel Horwitz, Barry Bishop, Christopher Reiner, Edinburgh Fringe, Gina Bishop, Grand Guignol, Horror, Ian Heath, Janica Patella, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, Michaela Slezak, Sweet Grassmarket, Theatre Review, Urban Death by Zombie Joe and Jana Wimer, Vanessa Cate, Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group
The Californian horror show “Urban Death” at the Sweet Grassmarket commences with some profound psychological unease. After I buy my ticket, the box office attendant helpfully points out that, “There are no latecomers or readmittances. This means that you can’t leave to go to the toilet.”
Evidently, she thinks that her message has not properly sunk in. “You will have to pop to the toilet five minutes before the performance starts. People panic because they get a place at the front of the queue and then they suddenly think that they will need to go to the toilet. But if they do, they will lose their place.” She gestures in encouragement.
So this show is already niggling at me. The British Theatre Guide has described “Urban Death” as featuring “simulations of some gruesome acts” and “unsettling real moments of cruelty, which are genuinely uncomfortable to look at.” Imagine being trapped in this nightmarish experience and being unable to go to the toilet!
As the house is preparing to open, a theatre attendant appears on the staircase that looks down over the queuing area. “YOU WILL BE UNABLE TO GO TO THE TOILET! THERE WILL BE NO READMITTANCES!” Theatre-goers who are not one hundred percent drained and voided are thus herded en masse towards the lavatories. Every drop of surplus material will need to be wrung out of the audience.
The queue begins to file into the theatre and we are now being hectored from all sides. “Are you aware, sir, that you will be unable to go to the toilet?” It is as though we are boarding a low-budget transatlantic flight that has been somehow not equipped with any toilet facilities. Once we are all seated, worried-looking audience members are still jumping up and seeking permission for a final dart to the loos. The theatre attendants nod bleakly.
It gets funnier. There is a single member of the cast standing on stage, posing as a creepy porcelain doll. Amazingly, she has spent all of this time unblinking – her eyes are huge and stark and clearly being painfully strained. And she is being currently forced to wait like this as yet another audience member attends their last-minute appointment with the pan.
Finally the doors close for good and we are plunged into the blackness.
Five minutes later and I have relaxed. “Urban Death” is not really horror – it is ultimately clowning. I do not mean to downgrade the show by writing this, since it is extremely skilful and imaginative clowning. Moreover, I can understand why it is not advertised as a clown show – this might attract too simple-minded or unappreciative an audience. “Urban Death” admittedly adheres to the imagery of Grand Guignol – that gory, titillating Parisian horror theatre – but it is so merry as to become estranged from its own components. We are usually delighted and wowed by the antics on stage, rather than being meaningfully frightened.
“Urban Death” has made a contract with the darkness. It collaborates with that sleek, potent, nibbling darkness that is so vital to séances. We are immersed in it and we are not allowed to have our mobile phones switched on (a couple of jittery audience members eventually weaken over this). Tableaus and vignettes pounce of the blackness, like old-fashioned slides. They are about three-fifths hilarious, one-fifth uneasy and one-fifth shocking. Occasionally, they come as a whole.
The cast each burn through an entire lifetime of Halloween costumes. In between outfits, there is lavish, comedic nudity and some fabulous madcap puppetry. The jump scares, however, are few and a little off. At one point, the lights are cut a split-second too late and we see the axe being stayed before it pitches into the front row. From where I was sitting, I could also perceive the outlines of the performers slinking around me in the darkness. I was tempted to grab an ankle to see if I could turn the tables on them.
Charles Nonon, the director who had presided over the closure of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, famously claimed that, “We could never equal [the Nazi concentration camp of] Buchenwald.” In a haunting but inevitably over-ambitious scene, “Urban Death” labours to straddle this hurdle. Two naked women are shown sobbing together, before a man in Nazi uniform separates them. Using the Holocaust as a strategic flavour to solemnify some clowning gets too near to tastelessness. On the other hand, a vignette that depicts Christ gasping on the Cross is a thing of wondrous beauty. It looks somehow like both an icon that could be genuinely worshipped and a still from a trashy, torture-themed horror movie. The more that you stare at it, the less that you are able to decide which it is.
I normally work on the assumption that a venue is irrelevant to a production’s success. Theatre is not meant to inhabit a particular interior but to transport your imagination away from it. Yet “Urban Death” merits not necessarily a less intimate space, but certainly a more luxurious one. This extravaganza deserves better than a corporate meeting room in a hotel. For a show that is basically spectacle, there should be tiered seating. They should definitely bring “Urban Death” back to the Fringe and, next time, they should select one of Edinburgh’s many creepy abandoned churches as its gold frame.