Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th July, 2014
Based on a novel that predates Dracula, David Campton’s script has all the makings of a Hammer horror: the gothic 19th century setting, the pretty young girl at risk, the dashing hero… The twist is that the monster is a striking, apparently young woman who feeds off the blood of the locals, with her sights set on the pretty young girl as a long-time companion. Horror has always used the monster to symbolise the ‘other’ in society. Here it says that sex that is not procreative, is evil, and saps the strength of those who indulge, weakening them in body and mind until they die.
Ian Dickens has assembled a fine cast for this atmospheric tale. Christopher Hogben is the dashing, resolute Captain Field and I enjoyed James Percy’s brief turn as creepy servant Ivan, clicking the heels of his magnificent boots together. Peter Amory is a gruff Colonel Smithson, a sort of Von Trapp character in a bad mood, and Paul Lavers is effective as the ostensible man of reason, Doctor Spielsberg. Karen Ford gives solid support as the governess and Melissa Clements’s Lucy is suitably lively and engaging – until the ‘illness’ begins to take its toll.
In the title role, Michelle Morris is good as the commanding vampire, with a strident tone and a bit of Jedi mind control power in her hand. I would have liked a bit more light and shade to her or, alternatively, a little bit more camp. The production could do with a lot more camp, in fact. It’s played just a little too straight – and it’s a difficult mood to create and sustain, but all too easy to puncture. A portrait is carried on to show the likeness between Carmilla and a woman who has been dead for centuries. It looks too much like a publicity headshot rather than an oil painting of the period. The destruction of Carmilla at the end – mostly in blackout – is laughable with (SPOILER ALERT) lights up to reveal a naked skeleton lying on a tomb.
Now, if the approach had been a little more light-hearted, including the audience in the asides for example, we would forgive any clumsiness or ineffectual special effects. When Hogben comes on, in disguise as a gypsy, the show really comes back from the dead. I think the whole show should have been done with this larger-than-life gusto – we would be more willing to go along for the ride. This is the spirit, I thought, and I loved Beppo the monke
At the time when the story first appeared, vampires were brand new as a genre of popular culture. Nowadays we are all over-familiar with the lore: the mysterious marks at the side of the neck, the preventative properties of garlic… that it is nigh on impossible to scare us.
The play is therefore riddled with dramatic irony rather than suspense. Our knowledge is vastly superior to any of the characters.
Also, I would have tackled the lighting design differently. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do. More spots and candlelight would have raised the play’s game in the scary stakes. And I would have nixed the plodding tick-tock music that covers every scene transition.
A good-looking production in terms of costumes and set, Carmilla could have been an entertaining evening of comic-horror. As it stands at the moment, it’s rather bloodless and toothless.