Brockley Jack Theatre, London – until 27 October 2018
It has been more than 120 years since Count Dracula first rose from the grave to terrify Victorian readers. Since then Bram Stoker’s classic Gothic horror has appeared on stage and screen, parodied and spoofed. Arrows and Traps Theatre Company has followed up last year’s autumnal treat of Frankenstein with a new adaptation of Dracula.
It will delight fans of the genre. Arrows’ artistic director Ross McGregor has written an adaptation that is true to the original text, hugely ambitious and wildly engaging.
It’s a gorefest from start to finish, of course it is, with Cornelia Baumann’s exceptional, gender-swap, lunatic, Renfield, gorging on everything from blowflies (“They taste like burnt pork!”) to birds, the bloody, feathery, remains smeared across her face. It downplays Stoker’s invasion subtext and offers instead a plague thriller and erotic fantasy that dwells on Man’s ambitions and base desires.
And the corruption of innocence is also never far from the surface. The temperature inside the intimate theatre goes through the roof with Dracula’s carnal seduction of Lucy which ends the first act. Chris Tester, as Dracula, sweeps Lucy Ioannou’s virginal Lucy off her feet in a lustful, sensuously choreographed, dance that concludes with her submission to him. The (very steamy) moment captures the innate primaeval lure that drew, female readers particularly, to the original story.
Forget about foreign nobility leading the forces of darkness to our shores. Stoker’s spine-chiller allowed inhibited Victorian women to escape the humdrum of their lives and fantasise about a darkly supernatural ladykiller.
The tale opens with newly qualified solicitor, Jonathan Harker (Conor Ross), being sent to Transylvania to handle Count Dracula’s move to England. Through his memoirs we experience his arrival at the chilling castle. “I’m in a penny dreadful!” he mutters to himself.
The nobleman, at first courteous and hospitable, is desperate to settle in the UK and the young, impressionable Harker, has rented a house for him adjoining a lunatic asylum.
While he is abroad, finding himself in increasing peril, Harker’s fiancee, Mina (Beatrice Vincent), whiles away her time with a holiday to Whitby with her best friend, Lucy.
And, in another strand, we meet Renfield, incarcerated in the asylum where she eats any creature she can get her hands on while under the care of the resident doctor, and a rejected beau of Lucy, Jack Seward (Alex Stevens).
Tension mounts as the count nears England. Lucy, Mina, and Renfield fall under his spell and the future of mankind rests with Seward, Lucy’s boyfriend, Arthur, and the mysterious vampire-hunter, Abraham Van Helsing
The bloodshed and terror unleashed in this production cannot be understated but there are moments, particularly during the opening, when McGregor’s script is too playful.
At the outset audiences don’t know whether the production will be played for laughs or turn out to be a credible horror story.
But the opening flip asides and amusing banter, while wrong-footing theatre-goers for the much darker plot that follows, also serve to persuade them that perhaps they are watching another spoof.
Sadly, when Chris Tester’s impressive Dracula first speaks, much of the first night audience laughed at his Transylvanian accent, when he’s playing it perfectly seriously.
And he gives a terrific performance. His Dracula appears haunted, possessed by the image of a long-lost love whose memory tortures him. He’s desperate to have her back.
Yet he’s gracious, polite and welcoming to his young guest, his self-control only tested when Harker accidentally cuts himself while shaving.
However, his bloodlust is insatiable, and while he plots to snatch Mina he makes do with raping Lucy – to Britney Spears’ Toxic, which works surprisingly well.
McGregor makes full use of the space with Francine Huin-Wah’s striking set design which gives an upper level on stage.
With its utility design the clever space is transformed from the castle, to the sanitorium, to the girls’ homes and more. It’s a lot to squeeze into a small space but it works beautifully.
I found the production enthralling, with the entire cast turning in polished performances.
Stevens’ sweaty, drug-addled doctor, is an exercise in fear while both Ioannou and Vincent make bold and courageous heroines.
Yet, walking away from the theatre, it is Cornelia Baumann’s unhinged Renfield and Christopher Tester’s ferocious Dracula, that leave a lasting impression.
Definitely not played for laughs, Arrows & Traps Dracula is blood-curdling good.
Dracula plays at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until October 27 before moving to Yvonne Arnaud’s Mill Studio, Guildford, Nov 1-3.
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