Launched yesterday was London’s answer to the now renowned Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with its own brimming line up of off-centre theatre, comedy and music inhabiting all manner of interesting nooks and crannies in one of the city’s most vibrant cultural hubs.

Kicking off the Fringe antics on day one was Attila Theatre with Skin Deep, performed at the intimate performance space above the Lion and Unicorn pub near Kentish Town station .

The play centres around Erzsébet Báthory, and is based on the true story of a Hungarian Countess. A powerful women in 16th-century Europe she was also allegedly a prolific murderer, with reports suggesting she tortured and killed over 600 young women in cold blood between 1585 and 1609, inspiring many a folklore tale and even some myths surrounding the concept of vampires. A unique and intriguing premise for a theatre piece, the production draws the audience into Báthory’s story and troubled psyche to explore power, madness, violence and sexuality.

The female-heavy cast present a fascinating study in the often overlooked relationships between women and the nuanced shades of character that make up the female experience. Scenes and unfussy dialogue undulate between moments of physical and verbal cruelty from one woman to another, sensuality and sexual tension, dry wit and disturbing images of male/female abuse, such as Ferenc’s horrendous account of rape during his time at war.

Ashley Winter plays a fantastic Erzsébet, fostering sympathy at moments as she must endure aggressive teasing by her brothers – who pose a constant threat of physical and sexual abuse in their treatment of their sister and her maid – and give in to oppression in the form of a corset and inescapable need to provide an heir to her mother-in-law’s dynasty. This element of sympathy makes her sudden sadistic and violent turns all the more shocking and sinister, first hinted at in her imagined killing of a Turk, increasingly visible in her unbalanced mental state, and finally made manifest in bloody murder.

But Skin Deep‘s strength lies in the entirety of its female cast, from Erzsébet’s loyal and persevering maid, her ruthless mother-in-law and accompanying gaggle of maids – whose relentless crude banter provide some of the most hilarious moments of the play – to one of the shining stars of the performance: Hanna Rohtla as the brilliantly mischievous Darvulia, hailing from the brothels of Vienna to seduce and lead astray any young women in her path. Physical and visually arresting, the main action is punctuated with the figures of young women strewn across the floor, being physically abused by men, and haunting Erzsébet in paranormal-like flashes, strangling themselves.

Oh-so-Fringe in its rough edges and aesthetic (the vintage corsets meets Sports Direct football shorts costumes could be mistaken for dress rehearsal garb…) this is a wonderfully intense hour of bloody murder, witty dialogue and complex female characters.

★★★★

By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 1st August 2017.

Skin Deep is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre from 31st July until 6th August 2017. For further information or to book visit here.

For further information about Camden Fringe Festival 2017 visit the website here.

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