Writer: Bram Stoker
Director: John Nicholson
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Theatre Company, Le Navet Bete, have left their Devon home to tour their wickedly funny adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic horror story. Bram might recognise the rudiments of his story, but the treatment is unashamedly silly.
Professor Van Helsing attempts to put the record straight, after Bram Stoker’s sensationalising of the events recounted in the Professor’s diaries and research notes. He has hired three actors to help him expound the truth behind the fiction, and alert the world to the very real dangers presented by the forces of the undead. Unfortunately, the actors are not that competent, there are not enough of them to go round, and neither the stage set or the props cupboard, are adequate to the task of convincingly telling Van Helsing’s side of the story.
This is a treatment used successfully for many previous productions of much-loved classics from The 39 Steps, through The Hound of the Baskervilles to The Pocket Dream. It requires a clever script, ingenuity in staging, physicality, and versatility from the actors as well as slick co-ordination of the whole ensemble to ensure that the chaos is both controlled and comic. The team at Le Navet Bete (which may translate as “The Silly Turnip” or have some more exotic allusion) bring all this to the feast, and the audience loved it. That this included many children is a credit to the skill of the producers who have turned gothic horror into very funny family entertainment by taking none of it very seriously. Admittedly, they have also downplayed – but not entirely castrated – the darker sexual subtext to the story.
It is difficult to say how many characters the four-strong cast played in the course of just over two hours, but it must have been dozens. Matt Freeman, Dan Bianchi, Alex Dunn, and Nick Bunt switched roles at the drop of a hat, a wig, or a nightie, underwent more gender reassignment than was seemly, and mastered more personalities than Norman Bates. The only time it went awry – as far as the audience can tell – was when it was deliberately for comic effect. (The beauty being that even genuine mistakes become part of the comedy!).
While the acting obviously needs split second timing, the same is true of the technical support. This was particularly true of the sound cues which were precision tuned to chime with the stage action, and when they went wrong, it was clearly to add to the comedy. The first half stage had a box set with a proscenium which had seen better days with a patched up velvet curtain, with van Helsing’s “own” furniture gracing the stage. This was gradually destroyed by the hapless actors, and eventually the arch itself came to bits in an ill-judged attempt to fly Dracula aloft. As Van Helsing was injured during this bout of destruction, an innocent audience member was recruited to read in his part so that the show could go on. His family, and the rest of the audience, loved it. Deliciously, he was called up on stage at the finale to join the cast for a bow.
One of the running jokes of the show is that Van Helsing hates theatre and actors. He stands for the truth, against the lies promulgated by Stoker, and against the trickery of the stage show he must use to make his story better known. This relationship between the narrator, and the medium he can barely tolerate, provides a constant comic tension throughout the play. The tension is resolved in a no-holds-barred jazz dance finale (sort of) celebrating the (apparent) victory of the progressive scientific community over the primitive pagan belief systems represented by the vampire cult.
This is good quality entertainment, skilfully delivered, by talented actors and technicians, and with appeal across all ages. Moreover, it shows enough affection and respect to its source material to mock it lovingly. The Hammer Horror films would struggle to claim as much.
Reviewed on 13 May 2015 | Image: Matt Austin