Reviews West End & Central Published 20 January 2016

Dracula

Arts Theatre ⋄ 17th January 2016

Ed Clark reviews Action To The Word’s Steampunk “Dracula set to Radiohead”.

Ed Clark
Credit: Action to the Word

Credit: Action To The Word

I would have paid good money to be at the pitch for this show. One imagines that it went something like this:

‘I want to do Dracula.’

‘Excellent idea. A classic of the time yet still relevant today. Defining the presentation of vampires in popular culture for the last century.’

‘But with a steampunk twist.’

‘Ok. Clever. Incorporating a nineteenth-century mechanical aesthetic to tie in with the contemporary industrial boom of the original novel. Actors love goggles and corsets, too.’

‘Also, instruments. I’m thinking actor-musicians. Britney meets Bram.’

‘Love it. The player as a player. Meta-theatre. Pushing the boundaries of presentation and damn entertaining too, I’ll bet. Anything else?’

‘One more thing. Dr Seward will be played by a woman.’

‘WHAT!?’

Except without the last bit.

Much was made of the cast’s physical dexterity when their original Dracula took Edinburgh by storm in 2014, and having witnessed various leaps, bounds and contortions first hand you suspect the actors might be glad this was a one night showcase. Not that company Action To The Word will give their performers much rest. Audience members, after a standing ovation, told me the show has been reworked throughout 2015 by director Alex Spencer-Jones with creative bravado and restlessness. The company’s most notable productions (A Clockwork Orange toured internationally) have been equally physically demanding. In a play which could easily have blurred the line between artistic licence and exhibitionism, the cast delivered a performance simultaneously entertaining and thoughtful, flamboyant and intelligent. Once you’ve seen Dracula set to Radiohead, and then thought ‘bang on’, you know there’s some special direction at work. With ATTW back in town, future projects will be worth admission if they have half the energy of this play.

Though a fairly faithful retelling for a play that has Renfield playing a drum kit, the Count, in his mastery of language and music, is presented as a more sensitive character than Stoker wrote him. In the novel, Dracula’s motivation is power, here it is love that drives him. Martin McCreadie is excellent, commanding every ounce of attention with each appearance. In the pursuit of appearing physically powerful whilst maintaining an emotional vulnerability, he wholeheartedly succeeded.

Wordplay and badinage underpinned some of the best dialogue (‘I love England.’ ‘Have you been?’ ‘No.’) Quincy’s – a swaggering Tom Whitelock – accent may have wandered around the southern U.S. a little, but his sparring with love rival Holmwood (Marc Rhys) was an excellent Anglo-American tussle. James Smoker as (an underused) Van Helsing was just as amusing and pithy in equal measure. Rhys’ was a tough character to develop in such a sensory assault of a show, the subtleties of his outward arrogance at odds with indefatigable feelings for Lucy, but his furious love when he has to destroy her body indicated a fine performance. Meanwhile Henry Bauckham played both Harkers well – the young buck imprisoned by Dracula, and the victim of a tortured psyche after his escape.

It wouldn’t be Dracula without a good dose of sex. From Stoker to Marryat, and onwards towards (regrettably) Meyer, hyper-sexualised elements of the vampire have thrived. ATTW’s effort was no exception; Dracula and his fellow vampires’ ‘feeding’ was as much discomfiting as violent. And if Lucy was ‘punished’ for her relative promiscuity (‘She was everyone’s’, Dracula spits), then this is no more than Stoker intended. Lucy (Clarice Burton) and Mina (Olivia Bromley) are counterparts here, one an adventurous free spirit, the other a quiet Yorkshire girl, who love and are loved in different ways. Both were excellent. Burton stole scenes cheekily, even when confined to a bed; the frisson between her and the suitors was palpable, especially when Claire Petzal’s Seward had the stage. Bromley played Mina straight, eventually thwarting Dracula when she refuses to be tempted by his lust, taking such strength from the script that her final heroics never seemed in doubt.

In truth, though much of the ‘steampunked’ costume design is temporarily arresting, it feels like so much window dressing by the denouement. Perhaps the prop-makers baulked at steam-powered stakes. No-one demonstrated the power of the actor over the costume better than a quite wonderfully deranged Adam Clifford as Renfield. Probably the most demanding role on display, his scenes with Petzal practically hummed with psychological torment and obsession.

You sense that ATTW look to leave their audience breathless and almost overloaded with their Dracula. How pleasing that it also stands up to measured consideration. A few minor sound issues couldn’t detract from a distinctly entertaining performance.

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Dracula Show Info


Produced by Action To The Word, Catford Broadway Theatre & Glynis Henderson Productions

Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones

Written by Bram Stoker, adapted by Alexandra Spencer-Jones

Cast includes Martin McCreadie, Henry Bauckham, Olivia Bromley, Clarice Burton, Adam Clifford, Claire Petzal, Marc Rhys, Tom Whitelock, Marcelo Cervone, James Smoker

Original Music Joanna Cichonska & Katy Richardson

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