‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber’, by Proteus Theatre

Review from: Pavilion Theatre, Worthing; 12th June 2021

The lavish set for Proteus Theatre’s adaption of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was a
welcome and striking sight after a long break from being allowed inside a theatre. Sure, we were
wearing masks on our way in, and I ordered my beer using a QR code, but the anticipating
chatter as we took in the stage was familiar and comforting. Besides, I quite liked that the
Worthing Pavilion Theatre had seated us in our bubbles – I didn’t have to think about whether
my knee was touching the person next to me or get up every time someone joined a row.

As we enter, the cast of five women are already moving around on the stage, adorned in
elaborate costume. One is dressed in all black. Wrapped in sequins with a feather headdress and
tail, she fans herself as she swans in and out, disappearing into the set. Another is sporting a
tailcoat and gold trousers with a red bobbed wig, and confidently strides across the stage
hinting to the characters we will see her play later.

The show is based on Angela Carter’s book of short stories – feminist retellings of famous folk
and fairytales. The programme asks, ‘what are little girls made of?’ and answers ‘…They are
made of all the tales our mothers told us. And all the ones they didn’t dare’.

I have aptly brought my own mum to watch this show with me and she remarks that the set
looks like an escape room, with clues dotted around to hint at what’s to come. My eyes are first
drawn to the set of hanging white silks, spread out and draped over a stage filled with intriguing
miscellaneous items. To name a few, there is a dressing table of wigs, an easel, and a big
wooden structure that looks like a cage with a low hanging dance trapeze inside. Pinks and
yellows glow from under various lampshades, lighting a multitude of ornate picture frames, one
stating that we are in ‘Carter’s house of love’. The house lights dim, and we are welcomed by the
house mother (played by Ashley Christmas). She introduces us to the reoccurring themes,
represented by large, tarot-like cards: love, death, dissolution and wisdom. Like the rest of the
performers, she molds into various roles during the show – including a nun and a gambling table – but
her commanding presence guides us throughout.

I can’t comment on the book this show is based on, because I haven’t read it. If I had, I wonder
if knowing the stories already would have made the show a bit easier to follow, as sometimes it
was easy to lose track of who a character was or where we were in a narrative. I recognise that
fitting the ten stories of the book into one 80 minute show can’t have been an easy task, but this
meant there was often too much happening at once. Unfortunately, the feminist message was a
bit lacklustre. It may have been shocking to talk about female sexuality when the book was
released in 1979 but it isn’t now. The sentiment was in the right place but it wasn’t controversial
or nuanced. Whilst the female characters were relatable, the men were fantastical villains and
beasts and I am doubtful that any men in the audience would have seen themselves or their
actions in these characters, so we were left unchallenged. There are a few repeated phrases
which keep cropping up, such as ‘never have your headphones on while walking alone at night
that feel separate from the story and a bit out of place. However in one scene, there is an aside
in which we are given the definition of Stockholm syndrome and it does serve to highlight the
problematic undertones of the story unfurling, if only briefly.

This is definitely more of a theatre show with circus in it than a circus-based production, but the circus elements used create some strong images. A doubles silks routine becomes a sex scene, with two characters tangled up in
the bed sheets, and group acrobatics are used to keep a character suspended in the air,
conjuring up a dream-like state. We are taken on a mystical journey, accompanied by wolves,
vampires and beasts, with umbrellas doubling up as both swords and trees. There’s a suitcase puppet
show, clever projections and even a ventriloquist puppet. It feels unusual to see a contemporary
circus show with such abundance in its set, costume and props, and it really was a feast for the
eyes. It was inspiring to see a production like this coming out of such a difficult time for the arts
and it left me hopeful for the future.

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