Dracula’s Ghost

At the Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham (touring)

(This post was originally written for wwwthepublicreviews.com and reprinted here with their permission)

So, not only does it turn out that Van Helsing didn’t triumph over Dracula, as Bram Stoker would have had us believe, but in fact the un-dead Nosferatu isn’t a fictional character after all. In a macabre synthesis of history and fiction, Don’t Go Into The Cellar Theatre Company present the real Dracula and give him the chance to tell his side of the story.

In a two-handed reimagining of the fin de siècle tale, we meet the widowed Mrs Stoker as she is nearing the end of her life, and discover that her creepy companion, the aptly named Mr Leech, is none other than the blood-sucking count himself. He regales the ‘rats’, as he calls the audience, with grim and grisly tales of his past; a celebrity-studded history that would be the envy of Forrest Gump. Any incredulity that this immortal shape-shifter has rubbed shoulders with everyone from Fu Manchu to Oscar Wilde and Jack the Ripper, as he claims, is counter-balanced by the total authenticity of the presentation.

Evocative in itself, the set is simply brimming with vampire paraphernalia and Victoriana, and this immersive commitment to authenticity is also present in the beautifully crafted script written by Jonathan Goodwin. With close attention to both Stoker’s narrative and Victorian history, Goodwin is presumptuous of a knowledgeable audience. As a result, the script can appear a little dense at times, particularly in the first half, and it would be confusing for the uninitiated. It is, however, so exquisitely reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s language that it would slip in, quite believably, as a codicil at the end of his novel.

In addition to writing the script, Goodwin delivers it; and, as the title character, his acting is superb. Lizard-like, his Dracula is suitably sinister and subtly feral. His terrifying eye-rolling, twitching and lip-licking are unnervingly authentic and his brazen soliloquies perfect for an intimate setting such as the Old Joint Stock Theatre, where the audience can see right into the darkness of his soul through his piercing stares and the subtle inflections of his voice. He is a master of accents and happily not altogether the embodiment of fear and malignity; there are frequent moments of welcome comedy in the piece, especially when his briefly melodramatic play-acting is hilariously reminiscent of Count von Count from Sesame Street.

But this is not a one-man show. Andrea Stephenson is truly delightful as the ageing Florence Stoker, but where she really comes into her own is as the renowned Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry. Her entertaining vocal interlude is both charmingly delivered and delightfully comical. Playing everything from an Indian deity to a flirty young thing, Stephenson seems able to slip in and out of varied roles as easily as she changes clothes and appears at ease in them all.

Billing themselves as “Victorian Theatre with Bite”, Don’t Go Into The Cellar Theatre Company certainly have plenty to chew on in this production. With Halloween fast approaching the requisite chills and thrills are certainly present here, but it is not as cheap horror. It is, instead, an intelligent insight into the mind of the immortal. It’s a story you can really sink your teeth into.

Four stars ****

Reviewed on: 22nd October and on tour

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Abigail’s Party at Curve, Leicester – A Review

Cringing but Crying with Laughter

Not a single word has been spoken when the first laughs come.

It’s testament to the fact that, in this production of Abigail’s Party it is not just Mike Leigh’s brilliantly comedic script, but also the sheer physical expression that the actors convey which leaves the audience both uncomfortable and rolling in the aisles.

It is a rare gift, to be able to make people laugh and squirm at the same time, but this new production of Abigail’s Party has managed to achieve exactly that.

The architecture of the Curve Theatre in Leicester lends itself well to the theatre in the round, but this is the first time such a production has been staged here and no doubt it won’t be the last. The audience is practically pulled into the party as they surround the stage.

Sitting around the low stage, the living room and all its accoutrements are close enough to touch and it feels like you are sitting right inside Beverly and Laurence’s kitsch living room.

It’s all here; the loud, orange carpet, shag-pile cushions, fibre optic spray lamp, record player and silver (plate) candelabra transport you back to 1977, not to mention the drinks cabinet complete with pineapple shaped ice bucket and soda syphon.

The action is at times fast paced, at others filled with the kind of awkward silences and wooden conversation you would find at an unsuccessful party…. it is the kind of party we have all been to and the kind we all wish we hadn’t.

But this isn’t Abigail’s party. Abigail is the teenage daughter of divorcee Sue, who Beverly has invited round so her daughter can party without mum in the way.

Beverly has also invited new neighbours Tony and Angela, although we get the distinct impression that her husband Laurence isn’t exactly in the mood for a party.

Laurence, played by Patrick Moy, is an angina attack waiting to happen. He is constantly agitated and preoccupied with his work as an estate agent for Wibley Webb. The way he pronounces the name of his employer is itself a scream.

Moy’s characterisation is completely credible as the ambitious but nervy and overly tense middle class man who is concerned that his neighbourhood is becoming more downmarket and is continually frustrated by his empty-headed wife.

Emily Head’s portrayal of Angela is suitably sweet and ditzy and her quirky dancing is both wonderfully awkward and delightfully hilarious.

Her tightly monosyllabic ex-footballer husband, Tony, played by Cary Crankson, visually loosens up as his blood-alcohol levels rise throughout the play, eliciting more laughs from the audience as he responds to the advances of Beverly like a giant, sleepy koala hugging a tree.

The tension in Jackie Morrison’s Sue is palpable, not just because of her worries about her daughter’s wild party antics up the street, but as Beverly and Angela hilariously make insensitive references to her divorce we see her polite discomfort rise towards breaking point.

The irony of nurse Angela’s attempt to make her comfortable by stuffing cushions behind her, to the extent she is actually tipping forward, is emblematic of the way the play is so uncomfortable, and so gloriously comical.

Of course, the pivotal character in the whole debacle is Beverly. In a role made famous by Alison Steadman, Natalie Thomas is very well-suited.

There are comforting references back to Steadman’s portrayal, but Thomas adds to these and, in so doing, makes it her own.

From her side-splitting sexual dancing display to her self-absorbed insensitivity, Thomas’s Beverly is most definitely stunning. You can’t help but love her and hate her all at the same time.

The climax of the play features a picture that Beverly considers a piece of erotic art, but that Laurence despises as pornographic rubbish, but when Beverly brings in the picture it is a shame that where we were sitting we were unable to see what all the fuss was about.

This kind of thing is always a drawback with theatre in the round, but then does it really matter? This play is all about the characters.

Despite being set in the 1970s, Abigail’s Party is timeless. All the seventies icons and references are mere framing. The real brilliance of this play is the characterisation.

Everyone in the audience has undoubtedly met people just like Mike Leigh’s characters. They are not simple cariacatures, they are just like real people, and coupled with the normality of the setting and the situation, this is what makes it all the more uncomfortable.

It’s horrible. It’s excruciating to watch. But, as Beverly would say, it’s ‘fantastic!’

I saw Abigail’s Party at Curve Leicester on Friday 17th October 2014. The play is running until Saturday 8th November 2014

More information can be found by visiting www.curveonline.co.uk

Great Expectations Fulfilled

Menacing criminals, a young man with ambition and a properly bonkers old lady – this was definitely a play that delivered on Great Expectations.

London Contemporary Theatre delivered a truly modern theatrical take on Charles Dickens’ classic coming of age novel in their penultimate touring performance at Stamford Arts Centre last night.

The story is centred around young Philip “Pip” Pirrip’s journey from childhood to middle age and deals with criminality, love and ambition.

Pip begins his life in very humble circumstances, but he is soon thrust onto a path that will eventually lead him towards a very different life.

A chance meeting with an escaped convict and an invitation to a decaying stately home where Pip meets the bitter and twisted Miss Havisham and her beautiful adopted daughter Estella, starts Pip on a voyage of self-discovery.

The problem with any adaptation of this particular story, however, is that Dickens’ novel spans a period of about thirty years and contains a densely populated world of both major and minor characters, some of which are peripheral, but many who are woven together to make up the intricate tapestry of the story.

The challenge, therefore, when adapting such an epic tale for the stage is in deciding what to keep in and what to leave out – it is essentially a question of what is crucial and what is superficial.

Scriptwriter Tom Crowley handled this problem very well in his modern take on the story of the boy with high aspirations. Managing to condense the story down into a couple of hours on stage, the production is actually pretty faithful to its source, with certain updated details thrown in.

From Pip having to clean up baby sick in his job at ASDA to him securing a place at the London School of Economics through Clearing, there are contemporary references everywhere, many of which elicited approving laughs from the audience.

Undoubtedly, however, there have to be compromises and modifications in any adaptation, and this production was no exception. We are introduced to a newly constructed character in the shape of Pip’s mother, Jo.

In the original novel Pip’s mother and father are dead and he lives with his harshly unkind sister and her husband, Joe Gargery. Joe is a friend to Pip and a particularly loveable character. Sadly, Joe is one of the casualties here, and those who love the novel will undoubtedly mourn his loss.

However, the production makes up for this slight by delivering a talented ensemble performance. All the actors play two parts, except Jonathan Brindley who plays Pip and manages to age beautifully during the course of the play.

The doubling is particularly effective in the characters of Estella and Biddy, played by Catherine Thorncombe. The cold, harsh Estella is in stark contrast to the warm, bubbly Biddy and to have the same actress play both parts lends a deeper dimension to an understanding of each character.

Music features very effectively in the production, most notably in-between scenes, with a striking arrangement that emulates a ticking clock and, when taken together with the stylised choreography, skilfully emulates the passing of time.

Lucy Peacock, who plays Miss Havisham and Jo Gargery, puts in two very diverse performances and yet is completely believable in both.

As the batty old lady she is suitably unnerving, and as Pip’s mum she is warm and earnest and her relationship with the young Pip is one of the most credible in the play.

To add to this she puts in a hilarious bonus performance as an opera singing busker, a moment which stands on its own as a piece of true entertainment.

There are many other laughs in the play, and it would be hard to forget the way Mr Jaggers, in this adaptation a university professor, rides his swivel chair off the stage, carrying his whole desk and laptop with him.

The only truly disappointing moment is the extremely confusing scene which leaves audience members scratching their heads wondering what has just happened to Miss Havisham. For those who are unfamiliar with the novel it would be unclear exactly what the action is meant to represent.

Nonetheless, this play is a truly enjoyable experience and leaves the audience in absolutely no doubt that their expectations for a great night out have most definitely been fulfilled.

 

Stamford  Arts Centre – 15th October 2014.
London Contemporary Theatre Company have been touring Great Expectations at UK theatres with their final date at the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield on 17th October 2014.