Horror shows are quite rare at the Fringe. Many pieces of theatre will seek to make the audience laugh or quietly reflect, but few will incite terror and leave a trickle of sweat crawling down your spine. Urban Death is one of those shows. It takes a while to reach its gut-wrenching crescendo, but when it does you will be crying for your mother. This show is relentless.
Urban Death is a contemporary resurrection of the shows once seen in Paris’ Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, or more simply the Grand Guignol. The theatre became famous for its naturalistic, gory horror that tended towards investigations of psychosis, paranoia, and other human states rather than going down the supernatural route. It closed in 1962, but Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group deliver a testament to its legacy.
The play is a series of short vignettes. Some are more immediately disturbing than others, several feature full frontal nudity and a lot of them will leave you scratching your head more than anything else. When Urban Death goes down the route of making you feel ill or jump out of your chair, it works, and a fear will overcome you. As for some of the more sexually charged or even humorous moments, it is difficult to work out what their inclusion signifies. Sometimes it feels like Urban Death wants to say a lot, but its commitment to the surreal and macabre means that spitting it out is not possible.
This can make it a difficult piece to engage with at the start, but as the minutes tick by, the show tightens its merciless choke-hold on you. Even if some of it doesn’t make sense, you are transfixed by what is on the stage. You hear what is happening several seconds before you see it, and when you do, strange visions of cruelty and violence begin to flood your field of vision. It is not what you would call enjoyable. It is more terrifying, unnerving and distressing than anything else, but that’s how plenty of people get their kicks. It was true at the time of the Grand Guignol and it is true now.
It is an incredibly physical show, with human bodies being the focus of attention. The actors bend and emerge and reach new heights in eye catching ways. Even in those scenes where the actors are basically still, their bodies remain a central focus and it is through posture, movement, and facial expression that the finer details reveal themselves.
Technically, Urban Death is a marvel. The music kicks off with looming synth and transforms multiple times throughout the show, but whatever form it takes you never feel comfortable listening to it. Between the vignettes the room is in pitch black, leaving you alone with the music. Many scenes also make inventive use of lights; sometimes it gets distinct Blair Witch Project feelings when the only light in the room is a torch held by a lone figure onstage, or when someone desperately holds up a lighter. For such a small venue, it feels much bigger, as if the cast are sucking you into this horrible void of grotesque, amoral behaviour. It could leave you with a newfound fear of the dark.
Plenty will leave Urban Death announcing their hatred of it to the world, and it is an acquired taste. For fans of horror theatre though, this mostly delivers a big bag of gory treats. It leaves you in a strange state of bewilderment and fear that you may not understand. Perhaps you simply have to see it again.
Sweet Grassmarket – Grassmarket 2 (Venue 18)
Until 26 August
Photo Credit: Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group