Tag Archives: Bram Stoker

Out for the Count

DRACULA

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th October, 2018

 

Dracula is one of those characters that has become part of global culture; like Tarzan or Peter Pan, everyone has heard of him, thanks in no small part to the innumerable film versions of the story and its spin-offs.  The original Bram Stoker novel can come as a surprise to first-time readers due to its epistolary nature: the story is told through letters between the characters, so it has multi-first-person viewpoints.  Here Mark Webster’s faithful-ish adaptation makes great use of characters reading what they are writing, or from letters they have received, often as preludes to flashbacks or reconstructions of incidents.

It gets off to a strong start with Adrian Rosu capturing our attention as a Sea Captain making entries in his log.  Rosu’s authentic Romanian accent (he’s from that part of the world) immediately evokes the atmosphere as he recounts incidents in which a mysterious figure on board picks off his men.  Webster begins the play with the arrival of the Count in England – the book’s opening events (Jonathan Harker’s experiences at Castle Dracula) are saved for later in extended flashbacks.  Rosu also appears as Harker, giving his RP accent an airing, and clearly portraying the various stages of Harker’s health, pre- and post-Transylvania.

Taresh Solanki is a nervy, passionate Doctor Seward, while Chris Del Manso’s Professor Van Helsing is authoritative and eccentric without going over the top, in a commanding performance.  Nisaro Karim is a tall and burly Arthur – is the character American?  I can’t remember and I can’t tell.  Karim doubles as a tall and burly Count; in these scenes Karim’s stage presence is stronger.  His Dracula towers over proceedings.  You wouldn’t want to mess with him.

The female members of the cast are uniformly excellent.  Nichola Woolley’s perky Lucy really comes to life, ironically, when the character joins the ranks of the undead.  Danica Corns’s Mina has fortitude – this is no shrinking-violet, damsel in distress.  Kaz Luckins is compellingly wild-eyed and intense as a gender-swapped mental patient, the zoophagous Renfield, but it is Carys Jones who makes the strongest impression of all in a range of roles: asylum warder Hennessey, Sister Agatha, Lucy’s mum…

Director Simon Ravenhill’s set is multi-purpose, coming into its own when two or three scenes are staged concurrently, the action cross-cutting between them.  The intimate, even cosy, stage at the Blue Orange, means we can take it all in, without having to move our heads like spectators at a tennis match.  There is a lot going on but it is skilfully presented so that we never lose focus.  The action sequences, the outbursts of violence, are very well staged.

Dean Bowyer’s lighting makes shrewd use of red and green colour washes, and the occasional chilly blue.  Mark Webster’s sound design successfully evokes scenery: crowds etc, while also providing a great deal of the eeriness.  Renfield’s flies, for example, and the otherworldly voices of the vampire women, which are extremely well done.

Inevitably, I suppose, it’s a very wordy piece and it runs a bit long, but the sterling efforts of the strong cast keep us hooked – even if we are familiar with the tale.  There are a few instances when the energy drops a little but, this being the first night of the run, I am sure things will tighten up as the week progresses.

An atmospheric, tonally perfect piece with moments of menace and an unusual twist at the end I didn’t see coming, this production is definitely worth an evening of your time.

dracula

Dead on his feet: Nisaro Karim as Count Dracula

 

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Absolutely Batty

DRACULA: THE BLOODY TRUTH

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 15th August, 2017

 

Exeter-based troupe, Le Navet Bête (The Stupid Turnip) bring their zany antics to the Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre for a couple of sell-out performances of this new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal novel.  In this one, Professor Abraham Van Helsing is our host, declaiming Stoker for misappropriating the truth.  Dracula, Van Helsing asserts, is in fact, fact.  So begins a very silly evening, as Van Helsing and his three associates reconstruct events for our information.

It’s a madcap couple of hours where the theatricality is as heightened as the silliness.  Draining the same comic vein as The Play That Goes Wrong the group’s apparently shambolic efforts at drama are relentlessly funny, as door handles come off, props are destroyed and even the proscenium arch comes tumbling down.  There is physical comedy too as the energetic quartet dart around, sometimes portraying different characters in the same scene, and the script has a witty spirit that gives the actors plenty of scope to be hilarious.  The cast is comprised of Matt Freeman, Nick Blunt, Dan Bianchi and Al Dunn – but with all the dashing around it’s hard to keep track of who is whom.

John Nicholson’s direction maintains a frenetic pace, making judicious use of tech to enhance the relentless parade of gags.  “I hate theatre,” is Van Helsing’s constant refrain as his show collapses around him.  His production is cursed, it would appear, but we are blessed to witness this virtuoso display of slapstick and high camp.

Phil Eddolls’s design evokes the Victorian period, and is gloriously ‘inept’ – in one scene, characters are required to enter and exit via a door in the ‘fireplace’.  We have no hope of suspending our disbelief for a second.

It takes great skill to be as ‘bad’ as this and the vigour and charm of the cast keeps the joke from wearing thin.  The surprises keep coming in this breathless romp through the story.  It’s an unadulterated pleasure to wallow in silliness for a couple of hours in these troubling times.  If the show has a message, perhaps it’s that theatre should be entertaining and life should be enjoyed – because there are bad things out there and always will be.  This is fun you can sink your teeth into.

Dracula-1-C-Matt-Austin

Photo: Matt Austin

 


Sounds Horrible

DRACULA

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 10th March, 2015

 

Director Theresa Heskins has adapted the Bram Stoker novel fairly faithfully for this brand new production – most of the main characters are here and all the key scenes but what lifts this version above and beyond the main pre-existing others is…well, everything.

The stage is darker than I’ve ever seen it. Not only does this lend a creepy atmosphere but it focusses our hearing. Sound is brought to the fore in the form of sound effects, performed live by the cast – we’ve all seen footage of radio drama being recorded or sound effects being added to a film soundtrack. At first, as the effects support the mime of the actors, you look up to their workbenches to see how the sounds are produced, but after a while, you let that go as the action draws you in. Sound designers James Earl-Davis and Alex Day are certainly inventive and undeniably ‘effect’-ive. Also, the eerie music and atonal soundscapes of brilliant composer James Atherton create an unsettling mood, as evocative as they are unnerving.

An excellent Isaac Stanmore is a lively Jonathan Harker, arriving at Castle Dracula, and our narrator. Light and dark create doorways – as with radio drama, the scenery is left to our imagination. Daniella Beattie’s lighting is precise and sharp, using chiaroscuro like an Old Master to illuminate or keep in shadow. With horror, it’s not so much what is shown as what remains hidden. And what we don’t see, we hear. That sound may really be a fork plunging into half a cabbage or whatever, but to our engaged imaginations, it is something much, much worse.

From his first entrance, Jack Klaff’s Dracula casts a long shadow – just as the character does over the rest of the proceedings. He stalks around the stage at a steady pace, intoning his lines without melodrama. That famous line about the “children of the night” is absolutely chilling here – Heskins has successfully avoided all notions of the camp and the kitsch. The well-worn story comes across as something entirely fresh. Klaff, with his snow-white hair and his exotic vocal tones embodies menace. His three brides (Hazel Lam, Sophie Morris, and Rebecca Rennison) bring Gothic eroticism in their seduction of Jonathan Harker, shinning up lengths of rope and silk and contorting themselves in mid-air. It’s rather spectacular but the work of ‘aerial director’ Vicki Amedume really packs a visual punch in the second act, when Dracula, now younger and revitalised and Jonathan Charles, hovers over Mina’s bed, slowly swooping down to her in hypnotic silence. Absolutely stunning.

Charles also moves with inhuman grace – his Dracula is not like us at all, and more animalistic than Klaff’s elder statesman.

Jasmine Blackborow is Lucy, full of girlish verve until the Count sinks his fangs into her. Her transformation into an undead wraith is superbly realised and so is her execution with a stake to the heart. Here sound and visuals combine in a moment of sheer horror. And yet there is nary a flash of fang or a drop of blood – Heskins keeps those details in our minds, and there’s nowhere scarier than one’s one mind.

New Vic stalwart Ali Watt’s Dr Seward has an emotive outburst, while John O’Mahony’s Professor Van Helsing maintains a sort of calm urgency. Sarah Schoenbeck’s Mina, ostensibly the damsel in distress, has an inner strength and an appeal that goes beyond her character’s function in the plot. Indeed, the whole ensemble is top notch – even the unseen Renfield, played (vocally) to the hilt by Conrad Nelson. Scenes are interspersed with recorded snatches of the lunatic’s case, as a counterpoint to the main action, a scientific examination to contrast with the supernatural events as they unfold. Unfortunately there is no pay-off for Renfield – the extracts don’t really go anywhere.

Tables and beds, formed of black blocks, rise and sink into the stage floor, the trap doors yawning like graves… There are many things about this production, both in form and in content, that will stay with me for a long time. Heskins has triumphed yet again in this departure from her usual style and has created a piece that is truly memorable, creepy and above all, beautiful.

Jack Klaff

Jack Klaff


R.O.G.E.R. More

R.O.G.E.R. RADIO

Derby Theatre, Friday 8th March, 2013

 

Oddsocks Productions, renowned for their adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works, have other strings to their bow.  One of those strings is the R.O.G.E.R. Radio format.  This is the second of their shows in this format.  The premise is simple but rich.  The plots are framed as live recordings of radio drama at which we are privileged to attend and in which we are invited to participate.  The cast of three, in evening wear, create all the characters through vocal work, and provide sound effects in the time-honoured way (shoes on a tray of gravel) and also in some inventive ways, often exaggerated to cartoonish extent.

But there is more to it, another level.  There is a tension between the performers outside the story they are performing.  We are constantly pulled out of the fictional world they create and into another one.  Added to that are the visual gags, unsuitable for a radio play, that give us the theatre audience plenty to look at.  Perhaps I’m making it sound more complicated than it is.  Perhaps it’s like trying to explain a joke; a joke dismantled is robbed of what makes it funny.

And this show is relentlessly funny.

We are treated to a double bill of classic stories.  First up is Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre of the Earth – a Boy’s Own adventure of exploration and discovery.  Played straight, the radio drama would paint pictures in our minds.  We would imagine all the special effects better than any Hollywood adaptation.  Here, there is an element of that but we are constantly drawn back to the radio studio and the creation of the piece before our very eyes.  The story falls secondary to this organised chaos.  The story is a coat-stand on which to hang all the silliness of the format.

Being an Oddsocks show, there are wild wigs and silly voices and even puppets.  The script by director Andy Barrow and Elli Mackenzie is riddled with double entendres, double talk, word play and silliness.  There is a running gag with an echo in a bucket that, just as you think it’s wearing thin, reaches its hilarious pay-off.  Barrow knows what he’s doing – the pacing is spot on.  There is, inevitably, audience participation; my contribution to a flock of doves sounded more like a Trimphone but there is something marvellous watching hundreds of people shouting lines from cue cards in funny accents.  We are a nation brought up on pantomime after all.

The second story The Lair of the White Worm is the more coherent narrative of the two.  It’s as though the first one is the set up for the second, familiarising us with the conventions of the piece.   Bram Stoker’s gothic melodrama has a range of weird characters that lend themselves more readily to an Oddsocks parody. It is also rich with Freudian symbolism which means, in this case, an unending supply of knob and hole jokes.  It’s cheeky schoolboy stuff but never grubby or puerile.  There are mongooses (Mongeese? Mengeese?) who meet sticky ends; animal cruelty has never been this funny.

Andy Barrow himself leads his company of three.  As resident genius of the company, he is a theatrical force to be reckoned with.  Joseph Maudsley has a suave, self-satisfied air as he pulls off some of the trickier sound effects, in role as a smug actor playing these characters.  And it’s a pleasure to see Susie Riddell back with the company.  All three are vocally versatile, energetic and disciplined.  That said, there is room for manoeuvre and improvisation when things don’t go exactly to plan.  A cleaver fails to hack through a cabbage.  An attack with a water-sprayer becomes too enthusiastic… You have to see these things to appreciate them in context.  The accidents keep the show fresh for the actors.  Clearly they are enjoying themselves immensely.  That enjoyment transmits to the audience.

It’s a winning formula and I look forward to further stories receiving the R.O.G.E.R. Radio treatment.  This production deserves to be seen by a wider audience in a range of venues across the country.  It’s Round the Horne on Red Bull, The Goon Show on a sugar overdose.  You’d be hard pressed to find a funnier and more gloriously silly night out.

ROGER RADIO