When I was a kid in the 1970s, the French films about the brilliant criminal Fantômas, starring Jean Marais as the fearless journalist Fandor and the great comedian Louis de Funès as Inspector Juve were cult. Little did I know that they were actually preceded by Louis Feuillade’s silent movies, an espionage series set in pre-WW Europe, which laid the foundation for Feuillade’s own work Les Vampires and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films. Fantômas is a master of disguise, usually dressed in black. Along with his accomplices and various mistresses, he is pursued by Inspector Juve and his friend Fandor but he always manages to escape in the last minute.
The composer Stanley Silverman, who had begun collaborating with playwright Richard Foreman in 1968, was fascinated by Louis Feuillade’s series and they created HOTEL FOR CRIMINALS in 1974, rather more an opera than a musical. Silverman’s music is influenced by Jacques Offenbach’s operettas, Scott Joplin, the Baroque composer Handel and Austrian expressionist Arnold Schoenberg. Although the show has a cult following in the U. S. and has been produced in Paris and Lyon, it has never made it to the UK. Patrick Kennedy of Wanderlust Productions has been determined to bring this work to London, ever since he first heard Silverman’s score, and he is designing, choreographing, and directing the production himself.
As the audience enters the auditorium, the actors are already on stage. All of them have a very unique look, recalling the distinctive makeup of silent movies: A lady is lounging on a chaise longue, a maid is dusting a coffin, one man is hiding behind a large fan with the inscription “Fantomas Strikes” and another man is sitting on a chair, his eyes covered by a bandage, whilst eerie music adds to the spooky atmosphere. Other characters keep appearing and disappearing. As the performance begins, a narrator provides an introduction to the work of Phantasmagoria and to the brilliant criminal Fantomas.
The show is driven by the musical score, there is little plot. The young journalist Max Beauchamp is spending a night in a French hotel to find Fantomas, the most notorious criminal in France. But Fantomas and his accomplices are already expecting him. Max encounters a variety of very strange characters, but also meets the beautiful Helene – daughter of Fantomas. In a strange ceremony Max marries Helene but does this really happen or is it just an illusion? It is hard to say as a gigantic raven and a vampiress also make their entrances during the show.
The performance is fascinating to watch and the score is very unique and quite demanding, such as the atonal “Do Not Enter”, followed by the operatic “Come and Play” but the cast is up to the challenge. There is a distinct touch of surrealism. Kennedy’s choreography often makes the characters appear like mechanical toys moving in a very artificial way, which, together with the uncanny makeup, gives them a somewhat grotesque look. The only letdown for me was the penetrating buzzing noise that follows every song and scene, which I came to dread it. But perhaps this was the director’s intention.
This is an exciting, accomplished and very unusual production of the first act of the weird and wondrous opera HOTEL FOR CRIMINALS – it makes you want to see a production of the whole opera.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
HOTEL FOR CRIMINALS is playing at the New Wimbledon Studio Theatre until 29 October 2016