saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
The Gentlemen of Horror
The Phoenix Artist Club
4th August 2014
Photography supplied by My Own Private Submarine
With recent film releases such as The Purge 2: Anarchy, it's clear that horror these days means gore, gore, gore and lots of it. But it wasn't always like that. Back in its heyday, Hammer was producing rather nicer horror films, with suspiciously ketchup-looking blood and "made-you-jump" direction. At the heart of its success was the relationship between its two stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, undeniably the biggest names in British gothic film from the 50s to the late 70s. Usually adversaries on screen, the pair were actually best of friends. Playwright James Goss is clearly a fan of that simpler time, with The Gentlemen of Horror a touching biographical study of the two men that director Kate Webster makes as no-nonsense, charming and fun as the infamous studios' films.
Peter (Matthew Woodcock) and Christopher (William McGeough) are both depicted as quintessential British gentlemen. When we first meet them, Peter is the big star with Christopher bemoaning his lack of lines, the catalyst for their real-life meeting during Curse of Frankenstein. Over the course of the play these roles are reversed: as Peter's career takes a back seat following his wife's death and Christopher becomes the more famous out of the pair, he treats Peter with the same kindness and respect the other man showed him at the start of his career.
It's an equal friendship with a warm and genuine rapport evident - as Peter's health begins to fail, the concern from Christopher is moving. Whether just from scouring his biography or meticulously analysing film and interview footage, Goss's portrayal is true on every level. It literally accurately presents the nature of their relationship but also feels emotionally true to the audience, a much harder and more ethereal thing to capture. That said, Hammer was very much about the shock value, and an innocent joke about Jim'll-Fix-It hits so quickly and unexpectedly that the audience are briefly stunned before amused and appalled in equal measure.
The decline of Hammer horror is charted through the two men's conversations - as the end draws closer, Christopher reveals "They're bust, Peter - Hammer." The duo are very much the product of an era gone by, but they know they're on the way out: "Films change - no place for gentlemen." Obviously this didn't really ring true, given Lee's subsequent success but it nonetheless provides a necessary poignant ballast and added value to the narrative. They weren't to know there was still country for old men.
Time is marked by setting the chats between Peter and Christopher on the set of a different film, waiting around for the next take to be called. Webster signals scene changes with trailer voiceovers and blood red lights, as opposed to the usual blackouts, an apt and thoughtful touch. Clothes are picked off the rail of costumes kept on stage, until the the only thing remaining is Christopher's Dracula cape, something which signals the one part he can never escape. The Phoenix Artist Club is a small, intimate venue and Webster doesn't have a great deal of space or many props, but it doesn't matter; she evokes the setting perfectly. There's not much of a plot, but The Gentlemen of Horror is a thoroughly delight character study of two of film's greats, executed with a loving attention to detail.
The bromance is written with eloquence and care and both Woodcock and McGeough do it justice. While they don't necessarily "act older" as time passes, there's a certain je ne sais quoi about their performance that hints at a continually deepening, warm relationship across the ages. It never feels as if they're attempting to impersonate the idols either. True, Woodcock gets the placidity of Peter and McGeough the dynamism of Christopher but there's something much real and fleshed-out than mimickry.
If you don't know anything about Hammer or the two actors, you might not appreciate all the finer detail worked in by Webster and Goss. Yet this isn't just of historical interest, but human interest too and serves as a touching tribute to two legends.
The Gentlemen of Horror opened on 2nd August and runs until 7th August 2014 at the Phoenix Artist Club, as part of the Camden Fringe.
Nearest tube station: Tottenham Court Road (Northern, Central)