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Dracula

Bram Stoker, adapted by Liz Lochhead
Derby Playhouse
(2003)

The posters inside Derby Playhouse leave you in no doubt as to the city's connection with Dracula: the crazed count was terrifying theatre audiences in Derby before anywhere else.

The world premiere of the first stage adaptation, by Hamilton Deane, was staged at Derby's Grand Theatre in 1924 before it transferred to London. There it ran for almost 400 performances and fainting in the aisles was said to have been a regular occurrence.

So how will people look back on this version of Bram Stoker's chiller in another 79 years? They'll remember that no one passed out and they may recall Simon Holdsworth's amazing set. But they'll probably struggle to bring to mind Anthony Bunsee's Dracula.

Directors Stephen Edwards and Uzma Hameed presumably wanted to get as far away as possible from the Dracula of the Hammer horror films of the '60s and '70s. So they have Bunsee portraying the vain vampire with more humanity than Christopher Lee ever did. There are times when Bunsee even expresses doubt about what he's doing. But he spoils it by being too melodramatic, over-emphasising his moves like the ostentatious star of a silent movie.

The production has what most theatregoers expect from the genre: copious amounts of dry ice, blood, fangs, spooky music, echo on the voices, crucifixes and garlic.

The start is promising enough, Kelvin Towse's pulsating music crashing in before we get the first glimpse of the set, a huge, broken, gilt-framed mirror on one side and a padded cell in Arthur Seward's asylum on the other.

Dracula's entrance is also startling, Bunsee appearing from beneath a blood-red cape which had been on the stage since the beginning.

The most gripping performance is Matthew Sim's portrayal of Renfield, the paranoid schizophrenic who tangled with the Transylvanian bloodsucker and lived to tell the tale. Sim is troubled, twisted and tormented. He's engrossed in the role even when the action is taking place on the other side of the stage. But that highlights another problem with the production: there is too much going on. Often you find yourself concentrating on Sim while the action is supposed to be on the other side of the stage. Yet crucially I was focusing on the main players later on and missed the moment when Renfield hangs himself.

However, there are many good points in this rather wordy adaptation: Katherine Manners and Poppy Tierney give strong performances as Lucy and Mina Westerman, the objects of Dracula's desires; and Sarah Stanley is funny as the maid Florrie, strangely seductively dressed in what is a sensual production.

Mark Healy (Seward) and Dominic Marsh (Jonathan Harker) are more than adequate in roles which don't tax their abilities to the full.

But Kenneth Gilbert is a mystifying Van Helsing, laughing at people's misfortunes as he relishes another encounter with his old adversary Dracula.

The ending, when the entire stage is transformed into a huge padded cell, raises expectations only for the finale to peter out. There's no stake in Dracula's heart and he simply disappears into the hole in the stage from where he first emerges.

The evening promises so much but disappointingly fails to deliver. Or did I watch too many of those Hammer films when I was a teenager?

"Dracula" runs until November 1st

Reviewer: Steve Orme