Review: Dracula at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Following the smash hit success of The White Rose earlier this year, Arrows & Traps return to more familiar territory with a brand new reimagining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Adaptations of literary classics is where the company began, and for long-time fans of their work, this deliciously entertaining production feels a little like coming home.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

Adaptations of classic horror stories have a tendency to go one of two ways – either full-on terror, or spoof humour. Writer and director Ross McGregor charts his own unique course between these two options, bringing us a story which is both very funny and pretty scary in almost equal measure. The novel sets the scene through letters exchanged between solicitor Jonathan Harker (Conor Moss) and his fiancée Mina (Beatrice Vincent), and between Mina and her friend Lucy (Lucy Ioannou), and the play adopts the same style in its opening scenes, quickly introducing all the key characters and locations before immersing us in Stoker’s chilling tale. Slightly overlapping scenes ensure that the action keeps moving along at a brisk pace, building up to a fiendishly clever twist that diverts from the novel by allowing Mina to choose for herself how her story ends.

This, of course, is no accident; there’s a refreshingly modern flavour to the language and the attitudes throughout the play, and nowhere is this more evident than in its portrayal of the female characters. There’s no such thing as a damsel in distress in this story, and even in their moments of greatest peril, Mina and Lucy – both targeted by Dracula on his arrival in England – aren’t about to sit quietly around waiting for the menfolk to save them, any more than they’ll let anyone tell them earlier in the story who they should or shouldn’t marry. Meanwhile, the maniac Renfield (Cornelia Baumann) – in this adaptation also a woman – may be in thrall to Dracula, but despite the persistent efforts of Dr Seward (Alex Stevens), it’s Mina with whom she finally makes enough of a connection to withstand her master’s power.

Part of the fun of being an Arrows regular is seeing familiar actors taking on completely different roles, and always getting it right. Christopher Tester – last seen as the quietly conflicted Gestapo officer Mohr in The White Rose – wields power of a very different kind as Dracula, oozing charisma and menace as he seduces men and women alike; it’s not difficult to see why everyone ends up doing his bidding. Conor Moss and Alex Stevens (joined by returning Arrows Oliver Brassell and Andrew Wickes) go from fighting Nazis to taking down vampires – albeit with a touch less dignity – while Beatrice Vincent and Lucy Ioannou are drawn to the charms of the dark side, in stark contrast to the resolute strength of German resistance fighters Traute Lafrenz and Sophie Scholl. Finally, Cornelia Baumann’s performance as Renfield is a work of genius; a hunched figure with a vacant grin, she’s simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous, and undeniably mad but with moments of lucidity (and some cracking one-liners) that make her seem like easily the sanest person in the room.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

As with any Arrows show, everything about the production is visually stunning: Odin Corie’s costumes are beautiful, the spooky castle set designed by Francine Huin-Wah not only looks the part but proves unexpectedly versatile, and the brilliantly atmospheric lighting design from Ben Jacobs sets us up more than once for a bit of a scare. Even the final violent moments of Act 1 end up looking amazing, thanks to the expert contribution of movement director Will Pinchin (and a lot of fake blood).

As someone who’s avoided horror-based theatre ever since being good and traumatised by The Woman in Black when I was fourteen (not to mention an earlier visit to The Dracula Experience on a family holiday to Whitby), I had my doubts about going to see a show billed as “a spine-chilling masterpiece of fear”. But while the show is certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s also unexpectedly funny and a brilliant piece of storytelling. Devilishly good entertainment from Arrows & Traps – don’t miss it.

Dracula is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th October, then on to the Mill Studio at Yvonne Arnaud from 1st-3rd November.

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