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