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Stage fright: our pick of this winter's theatre

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Theatre is set to get gruesome and gripping this winter; strap yourself in for entertainment of a slightly uncomfortable nature

Words: Sophie Haslett

British audiences have a longstanding tradition of terrifying themselves in theatres. Take The Woman In Black; it debuted in Scarborough in 1987 and it has been a fixture in the West End since 1989. And as the trend for immersive theatre grows, so has the desire among theatre-goers to be spooked, chased and scared witless by actors who whisper in your ear when you’re least expecting it.

As it’s Halloween, there’s no better time to seek out the sort of experience that keeps you perched on your seat’s edge, gripping the hand rests with slightly clenched knuckles. So here’s our pick of the darkest, goriest and just plain terrifying theatre coming up. Just keep your wits about you.

Psycho Killer

If you’re a fan of Matt Smith and Eighties pop, you could do worse than see the soon-to-be erstwhile Time Lord fire up a chainsaw to the beat of Phil Collins’ Sussudio. Because, in a marked departure from Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho and the 2000 film of the same name starring Christian Bale, this production is a musical. Naturally, director Rupert Goold is keen to make the soundtrack central to the story; “The musical is very cool and hip but it also pastiches the period,” he explains. If you’re not clear on the plot, it’s about a yuppie Wall Street banker who likes to rape and murder while musing on business cards, face masks and Phil Collins. There will be blood. There will be Eighties music. There will be Matt Smith singing. All boxes ticked.

American Psycho; 3 December-25 January 2014; Almeida Theatre, London N1; £8-£45; almeida.co.uk

Vampire Weekend

When you enter London’s Royal Court don’t let the actors playing among the snow-laden silver-birch trees fool you into thinking Let The Right One In is a gentle winter’s tale. Once you’re settled in your seat, arterial blood is a defining factor in the very first scene. “In Dundee one night, an old couple left because of the blood,” recalls 18-year-old Martin Quinn, who plays Oskar, the bullied teenage boy who falls for Rebecca Benson’s Eli, a centuries-old vampire. This National Theatre of Scotland production is adapted from the 2004 Swedish horror novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist and directed by the Laurence Olivier Award-winning John Tiffany. It’s remained faithful to the book, even down to the swimming pool scene, for which Quinn had to train to withstand a whopping three-minute submersion.

Let The Right One In; 29 November-21 December; Royal Court Theatre, London SW1; £10-£36; royalcourttheatre.com

Runaway Train

The fact that James Bond masterminds Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson are involved in this production of the film noir classic Strangers On A Train should be enough to persuade audiences of its quality. So too should the cast, which includes Laurence Fox, Jack Huston (nephew of Anjelica) and Imogen Stubbs. Based on American writer Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s subsequent adaptation, this fast-paced thriller, which features an extremely pivotal scene in the first few minutes, sees Fox play small-time tennis star Guy Haines, who is forced to enter a psychological battle with Huston after a very odd conversation on a train. “From start to finish this is a roller-coaster of tension – the words ‘don’t do it’ will be screaming through the minds of the audience,” reveals producer Michael Rose.

Strangers On A Train; 2 November-22 February 2014; Gielgud Theatre, London W1D; £17.50-£57.50; strangersonatrainlondon.com

Dance Of The Dead

There’s a splash of vaudevillian humour to this contemporary dance production of Dracula but it is no less scary for it. “You need to prepare yourself for the terrifying screaming that comes out of nowhere,” warns Stylist’s features writer Lizzie Pook. “But as entertainment goes, it is obscenely good.” With a chilling score that includes Schnittke’s Tuba Mirum, and macabre costumes incorporating wolves’ heads and blood-spattered bridal gowns, it brings Bram Stoker’s classic 19th-century Gothic, erotic and relentlessly dark horror novel to life. Jonathan Goddard takes the role of the Count with Eleanor Duval playing Mina and Kristin McGuire as Lucy. Mark Bruce directs and choreographs. Go see.

Dracula; touring until 10 November; £5-£15; markbrucecompany.com

Nightmare Vision

What sets this version of 1984 apart from previous productions is the clever and effective use of video footage, which allows the narrative to jump across different eras. Here, Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s update of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian vision has been framed by a book-club discussion set in the distant future, where Mark Arends’ Winston talks about his old diary. Sound and graphics let the audience follow the protagonist as he relives his past. And it doesn’t scrimp on the more gruesome sections of the novel. While there are no real rats used in the production, what’s behind the door to Room 101 will still have you shuffling in your seat.

1984; touring until 16 November; £12-£30; headlong.co.uk

The Snuff Play (Nearly)

“A word of warning: you’re about to see a lot of strangulation scenes,” says Stylist’s contributing travel editor Anna Hart, who nipped in to see this London play, which is on for only a few more nights. The Grand Guignol tells the true story of a small Parisian theatre (the Guignol) that found a fast route to fortune and notoriety by staging its own peculiar – and more often than not outrageous – brand of compelling and hideously naturalistic plays throughout the first half of the 20th century. Audience members were known to faint. And vomit. Perfect for fans of Gothic horror, this is a wry, dark and entertaining exploration of what audiences really want from performers.

The Grand Guignol; until 2 November; The Space Theatre, London E14; £10-£14; space.org.uk

Psychological Warfare

Fair is foul and foul is fair, as it has always been in Shakespeare’s bloodiest drama, Macbeth. This rendering by Conor McKee Productions and the Troop theatre company, known for their martial arts expertise, is poised to enjoy its second run in the North West, having sold out theatres in 2012. “The fight scenes are gripping,” enthuses McKee, “as the artists are highly skilled exponents of physical theatre and stage combat.” This rendition of The Scottish Play is about as heart-pounding as you can get. “The production is in one sitting,” McKee says, “so there is no escape from beginning to end. If you need a strong drink, you’d better have one before.” We predict a run on tickets.

Macbeth; 9-10 November at Salford Arts Theatre, Salford, M2; then touring; £7; salfordartstheatre.com

The Bloodbath

For blood, guts and pies, you can’t beat Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller, Sweeney Todd. And this version, performed in Manchester’s Royal Exchange, is packed full of jumps. “You won’t have time to prepare for the scary scenes, and you have to watch out for everyone during the performance,” explains Lee Drinkwater, the theatre’s company manager. His parting words? “Don’t trust anyone.” The highlight is David Birrell, who plays the eponymous barber, eerily slicing up and dispatching his victims beneath cold strip-lighting. Transported from the Victorian era to the Eighties, this is a more modern Sweeney Todd than what we’re used to, but it survives the leap.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, A Musical Thriller; 1-30 November; The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester M2; £10; royalexchange.co.uk

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