Grimly Handsome review – gripping Lynchian nightmare gets under the skin

Red Riding Hood was warned not to stray from the dark forest path for good reason. But when the designer and director partnership of Chloe Lamford and Sam Pritchard beckon you down an alley and through a thicket of Christmas trees for Julia Jarcho’s disconcerting and gripping play in three parts, you should follow. But look sharp. Danger lurks.

Lamford and Pritchard treat Jarcho’s text like a crime-scene artefact. The entire show is an immersive installation that begins with mulled wine and a tour through the rooms attached to the playing space. In these tinselly grottoes are stuffed scavenging creatures and children’s toys. Some of them will reappear on stage. At one point, you can peer through a peephole and spy on the passengers waiting on the platform at next-door Sloane Square tube. On the roof there is crime tape and a tent hiding dark secrets. The city’s rich look down on us, unseen.

Dark secrets … Alex Austin and Alex Beckett in Grimly Handsome. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Lamford and Pritchard turn us all into peeping Toms in a nightmarish evening of Lynchian strangeness. Much of the action is observed through windows or via CCTV cameras as Amaka Okafor’s lonely, trusting Natalia – an aficionado of trashy crime novels – dons a rust-red hat and scarf (one of many crime exhibits hanging around the room) and heads into an empty New York city lot. Here, east European Gregor (Alex Beckett) and his handsome young sidekick Alesh (Alex Austin) are flogging Christmas trees.

Watch teaser trailer for Grimly Handsome

The evening has a dislocating oddness. Characters melt into each other so that victim becomes witness becomes suspect. The tree salesmen morph into detectives investigating a serial killer, but they, too, have dark secrets. There are layers upon layers. About what we see, or don’t notice, and about what lies beneath the city’s gaudy festive tat that distracts us from something grimmer. And about the quest for survival that drives us into shadows. The third section offers an even wilder, more feral surprise. And a warning.

It’s very neatly done, the fine trio of actors rising to the technical challenges of a piece that worms its way into the brain and send you scurrying out into the city blinking – and more attuned to what might lurk behind the bright, seductive lights. Lyn Gardner

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