Roll up, roll up, for the end-of-the-pier show! Our bodies may be in the Bedlam Theatre, but our minds are transported to Brownlow’s Music Hall – a struggling home of second-rate entertainment, run by a man with a spiffing moustache and a loud check suit. It’s some time in the 1920’s and there are clear tensions in Brownlow’s crew, but there are no wry asides or behind-the-scenes glimpses here: it’s all played out under the glare of the spotlights, and over the course of a faithfully-recreated variety show.
And there is indeed a wide variety of acts to enjoy, from a 1900’s answer to Psychic Sally to a genuinely delightful, innocently saucy song in which two young women harmonise about their “brand new pennies”. Best of all, perhaps, is a gently macabre tale told by puppets, which develops into an absolutely captivating moment of old-fashioned entertainment. A couple of segments outstay their welcome a touch – but on the whole it’s a well-balanced and elaborately-choreographed production, which looks naïve on the surface but must be fiendishly complex behind the scenes.
Each time the curtain pulls back, there’s a fresh surprise behind it, every one imbued with sepia-tinted nostalgia for a simpler and less cynical age. It’s a brave move to include an “oriental” number singing the praises of Chinese herbs – but I think the pastiche is obvious enough, and inoffensive enough, to get away with. Meanwhile, our chequered host and his surprisingly athletic sidekick keep things moving along, gently stoking the audience’s applause and turning in some decent comic moments of their own.
So it’s fun to watch. But it’s not in any sense horrific – and for the first three-quarters of the seventy-minute running time, you may find yourself wondering what that ominous title is talking about. Don’t worry, something darker is indeed coming, and a handful of clues which were hidden in full view will reveal their significance by the end. It must be said that the ultimate plot twist is more melodramatic than creepy – but still, the gothic tone is entirely in keeping with the Victorian styling of the play.
To my mind, though, the script waits rather too long to play its hand; the joy of the “aha” isn’t quite enough to counteract the fidgety bemusement earlier on. It feels as though the team behind The Horror! really just wanted to give us a night of old-school vaudeville, and perhaps it would have been a better show if that’s all they’d committed to do. But it earns its fourth star for its faithful rendering of a bygone style of entertainment… and for committed and compelling performances, from a uniformly skilful cast.