Published on October 21st, 2016 | by Julia Bohanna0
Review: Dracula – Progress Theatre
A loud heartbeat intermittently sounds off stage as Dracula’s trio of wantons, madness writ large in their lovely and lascivious faces, stare out at us. The ghastly gals are in virginal white, but there will be crimson splashes added soon. The lights go down and abruptly, we are in the cold embrace of nocturnal nothingness and although we cannot hear or see it, we sense that the wantons are on the move. Slow. Sensual. Silent.
As the lights returns they are indeed closer and after each flick of the theatrical light switch, they grow closer, until they briefly leave the constraints of the stage to breathe (or more accurately not to breathe) among us, if only for a moment. In their grey slip-on shoes, they then move dancer-delicate to return to the equally grey castle.
Thus brilliantly begins Progress Theatre’s Dracula, while the fat moon holds court in the previously blood-cracked sky outside the theatre, Jonathan Harker is losing his mind, imprisoned far away from his beloved Mina by a possessive vampire family. We are tantalised by a glimpse of a tall masked spectre, before the creature retreats into shadow.
This is very much Bram Stoker’s novel, reverently referenced and adapted by Dan Clarke. In 1922 F. W. Murnau directed a memorable version of the tale, Nosferatu. Although the production angered Bram Stoker’s widow and triggered accusations of plagiarism, it truly popularised Dracula. Theatre and Film Director Peter Brooks once explained its popularity by summarising: ‘It was the moment of reigning evil that fascinated.’
Technically, it is hard to fault Progress’s dedicated prop and set designers who did indeed fascinate – from the tactile skull-embedded stone lair to the solidity of Professor Van Helsing’s weaponry. We are reminded too that Van Helsing is a professor, an academic. They have been careful to avoid any porcine hint of hamminess throughout – the music is dark in tone but does not overpower; there were no suspended rubbery bats and there were enough tense, eerie moments to keep the audience rapt. It is the right kind of gothic, weaving the sadomasochistic allure of the vampire lord, with strong storytelling and a good chemistry between Van Helsing and the changing Mina. We feel vulnerable and then truly grateful for cleansing light and a packet of Maltesers in the interval.
It’s easy to forget that there are only seven cast members playing every part, as all transformations are admirably done, and frequent – which takes good timing and memory. I was particularly struck by Rebecca Douglas’s faultless Southern drawl as male cowboy Quincey, one of Lucy’s suitors. Everyone moved so lithely on stage and the beckoning hirsute clawed hand of a lycanthrope – possibly Dracula in lupine transformation – was satisfying. Grotesque is implied but never over-shown; we have room in our imagination for wickedness. If there are indeed hairs on the back of my neck (I have always found the expression odd) it certainly felt as mine frequently stood soldierly to attention.
Ian Belcher plays Van Helsing and is also Dracula, the demonic philosopher who has lived too long and talks of ‘all kind of cruelty’ as a weary reality. Unusually for Dracula he is blond but this does not matter – as he plays the complex monster well. Like all the best Draculas, we fall in love with him, fear him but also pity his immortal fate, trapped as he is by his nature.
Although the magnificent seven do so well in their actorly roles, there is also great attention to detail in the masterful lighting and sound, even the exquisitely-designed flyers, fact-stuffed programme and the wonderful casting of Jonathan and Mina who had such mesmerising and authentically Victorian faces. Mina is a reminder of how even the most saintly soul can be ‘seduced’ by Dracula. The most chilling moment for me was seeing Lucy carrying…actually I think I will keep that to myself, as it may spoil the impact, as would explaining another neat little special effect that shows Dracula’s bloody disdain for innocence. Will he be punished finally?
There will be blood. There is blood. But Dracula captivates and charms too and will provide happy sleepless thrills for those who love the creeping approach of Halloween.
Walking back through a chilled Reading, there seemed to be hooded characters around every corner. No neck-nibbling night demons though; they were surely safely locked up in Progress Theatre. At least for now.
Dracula runs from Thursday 20th October to Saturday 29th October 2016, with performances at 7.45pm.