Written by Katharine Armitage from workshops with the cast, based on the novel by Bram Stoker
Tea Break Theatre
From 17 October 2017 to 04 November 2017
Review by Howard Loxton
This promenade performance draws on Bram Stoker's gothic horror novel which he set in the 1890 but is here played out in a Tudor house that dates from 1535 and whose dark panelled rooms add their own deeply disturbing mystery. As well as incorporating elements of Stoker’s original story, Katherine Armitage and the company have developed a site-specific story of vampires that goes back to the date when the house was built.
Involvement begins as soon as you arrive at Sutton House when, filling in a form to “exempt the organisers from anything which may befall my person”, you are asked to asked to identify your blood group. Going through to the bar in the Elizabethan kitchen, you’ll find a sign saying, “no red liquids served here”.
Proceedings begin as a tour around the house led by a young woman who seems to have problems when it comes to speaking of certain things and to being prompted by an unseen presence. Then strange things start happening; some of the party fall to the floor. It becomes clear that one group of people has been making a study of this house and (imagined) local history, a history of strange disappearances, especially of children. There are maps, letters, and other records: what will they find under the floorboards?
There’s not much more I can tell you without spoiling things for those going to see this production. They will meet Professor Helsing (Jon-Paul Rowden), Jonathan Harker (Christopher Dobson), his fiancée Mina (Molly Small) and the characters from Stoker’s story and there are elements to meet the expectations of those who know it from cinema versions. The group divides and sees different episodes in different locations (there is a chance to catch up on what you missed at the interval).
I’m not easily terrified, but someone confessed to me that they truly were very frightened at one point on a stairway in darkness. There are moments of real apprehension when with a vampire’s eyes resting on you those fangs may come uncomfortably close to your neck. There’s a vampire visitation to ailing Lucy (Jennifer Tyler) that is cleverly contrived and beautifully acted. (Don’t leave windows open, as does Jeff Scott’s Lord Godalming.)
Among many other scenes, there are a mesmerist session, an eerie ritual in Latin that seems to set off a time shift. Since this production plays during the Sutton House Queered season, there is an appropriate twist that makes Angela Nesi’s Jane Seward a willing victim. Lucky playgoers may be given a rosary but, like the crosses and garlic and stakes to drive through the heart that Professor Helsing and his helpers are equipped with, it may not be much help at the calamitous climax.
The opening section of this Dracula goes on a little too long before it starts on the real story and there are some incomprehensible elements (though they add to the mystery) but it is certainly spooky and, unlike so many horror movies, occasioned no laughs when I saw it.
The cast have enough to do being in the right room in the right costume at the right time but they deliver strong performances on top of that. A few moments that resort to video are less successful and not helped by poor sound quality. They just can’t match the teeth at the throat and the breath down your neck, which the live performance offers in close-up.
If you are lucky you, will leave this show alive, unlike the now undead who may now have fled the house, but if you walk home through Hackney churchyard you may be glad of the streetlights!