12 November 2010

Dracula - Sell A Door Theatre Company@ Greenwich Playhouse, Thursday 11th November 2010


Jonathan Harker is a solicitor’s clerk who travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania in order to finalise the purchase of Carfax Abbey for the mysterious Count. Harker discovers that Dracula is, in fact, an ancient Vampire. He is imprisoned in the castle and, to his horror, Dracula sets off for England. Dracula’s entourage is a consignment of wooden boxes filled with earth from the family graveyard. Under cover of a torrential storm, the Count arrives in England. . During his journey, he has terrified and killed the entire crew of the ship. He inflicts his powers on the voluptuous and flirtatious Lucy Westerman whose sister is Harker’s fiancĂ©e Mina.
Lucy’s lover Dr Seward and Harker try desperately to protect her but she is turned into one of the undead., preying on local children. Their efforts to save her soul are masterminded by the eminent Professor Van Helsing. Her reign is finally thwarted when Seward drives a stake through her heart.

Dracula preys on Mina, who married Harker on his escape from Transylvania. Meanwhile, Renfield, an inmate of the lunatic asylum and a former victim of Count Dracula, is affected by the presence of Count Dracula, whom he refers to as ‘the master’. Dracula is aware that the vampire hunters are close on his tail and a dramatic chase commences as he flees back to his castle in Transylvania. Eventually, Jonathon has the opportunity to decapitate him and completes the execution by driving a stake through his heart. Jonathon and Mina are reunited and the curse is destroyed.

Mina: Laura Blackmore
Lucy: Daisy Burns
Jonathan Harker: Matthew Grace
Renfield: Kieran Hennigan
Florrie: Sophie Holland
Nurse: Louise Ann Munro
Dracula: Louis Parker
Van Helsing: Alexander Pritchett
Dr. Seward: Ellis Wells

Creative Team:
Producers: David Hutchinson/Phillip Rowntree
Director: David Hutchinson
Movement: Carl Vorwerk
Lighting: Robert Gooch
Designer: Adrian Gee

Dear Sell A Door Theatre Company

Dracula is a difficult play to pull off successfully. It has multiple locations, both familiar and fantastic. It requires a healthy scepticism for literalism. It needs startling and creepy effects, atmosphere in bucket-loads and period-specific costumes. Basically, you need to be able to throw shedloads of money at it. If you can’t do this, you are left with two options – to completely reinvent it or to pick another play. Unfortunately you did neither. Admittedly Liz Lockhead’s plodding, wordy and anachronism-heavy adaptation of Stoker’s novel (Edwardians wouldn’t have been familiar with the phrase “annual leave”, measure medicines in milligrams or refer to photographs as “snaps”) does you no favours whatsoever. It gets bogged down in its attempt to follow the novel too closely, and makes for a very long performance. Where the text is very wordy, it should be trimmed to give a tighter story and a more acceptable running time, rather than gabble it at such high speed that it becomes unintelligible. Where the text includes period terms such as “antimacassar” and “sal volatile” you should learn how to pronounce them correctly.

When you cannot run to period costumes, it is better to do without them completely and re-invent the look of the production to fit your budget, (perhaps using the “New Romantic” look of the late 1980s which drew heavily on the ruffled, lacy and gothic styles of the late Edwardian period) than resort to a strange rag-bag of shockingly tatty odds and ends. Trousers had ragged hems which flapped above the ankles, jackets had split back seams and bustled skirts ended above the knees in front and dragged on the floor behind, showing bare legs. Even a pair of black tights underneath would have improved on this immeasurably. Hollywood can get away with putting Van Helsing in a Drizabone raincoat, but not Greenwich. A simple black dress with a white apron over it says “ladies’ maid” ” if topped with a small frilly cap placed over neatly parted hair, whereas a modern “pencil” skirt, high-heeled ankle boots and long uncombed hair do not. Period hairstyles are difficult to recreate, particularly for women, but can be approximated with the use of a set of heated tongs, a set of curlers and a bit of research. It is not acceptable for actors playing Edwardian vampire-hunters to have a quiff or for those playing doctors not to at least brush their hair into a parting and use some hairspray or gel on it.

Considerable thought must be given to special effects when presenting the supernatural. Where you have neither the budget nor the imagination to provide these, then it is best to choose a play which does not require them, although the use of showers of rose petals to represent blood does at least suggest that someone had at least one good ideas. Recordings of sound-effects such as the howling of wolves are easily obtainable on CD to prevent having people standing in the wings going “Ow oww owwwwww!” which is, frankly, only acceptable in nursery-school productions.

Where “period specific” props such as Edwardian typewriters or “watch the birdie” cameras are mentioned in the text, it is probably a good idea to adapt the text to make their use unnecessary, as they are expensive to obtain or difficult to mock-up convincingly. Where the text refers to a gas lamp, it is better to change the text and use a candlestick than have a lamp-base which looks right for the period but which has no shade as it will simply look like someone has dropped it half an hour before the start of the play and been unable to obtain a replacement shade.

Much depends on your casting. When casting a late Edwardian doctor, it is not appropriate to cast someone who appears through his demeanour and body language to be apologising for his very presence on the stage, seemingly wearing an invisible dufflecoat for the entire evening. Neither is it advisable to have someone portray a Psychiatric Nurse as Catherine Tate as your audience will not find this remotely amusing. The role of Lucy must be given to someone who can act, and who considers it more important to give priority in their programme biography to the roles they played in Romeo and Juliet and The Secret Garden than to that of “Buster” in something called Lesbian Bathhouse, as both Romeo and Juliet and The Secret Garden are better plays.  The part of Renfield does not leave much space for character development as he is a lunatic who spends the entire evening gibbering incoherently and it therefore a waste of talent to give this part to an obviously talented actor who would be far better used in the important role of Jonathan Harker. It is, however, entirely acceptable to cast someone with a gorgeous, chocolatey speaking voice in the pivotal role of the sexually ambivalent Count Dracula, particularly when he has the kind of hair you would like to run your fingers through as he drains your lifeblood out through your jugular vein. Thought however should be given to the advisability of making him speak in a “Transylvanian accent” as, to many people, this now bears a remarkable resemblance to that which is used in the “Compare the Meerkat” ads for insurance, and which may cause some reviewers to cough loudly throughout the performance in order to stifle incipient giggling attacks. I fully agree that this tendency to giggle could be seen as disrespectful to the actor concerned but I just couldn't help myself. 

It is unwise to splash out money on flash programmes when this money could have been spent on better and more imaginative staging and costumes. Likewise it is cute but possibly financially inadvisable to buy nibbles for your audience to consume during the interval, particularly when the latter consists of carrot sticks, M&S mini-doughnuts and what I think were scotch eggs because I don’t like them. When one is performing in a theatre attached to a pub which can reasonably be expected to sell alcohol in the interval, thus saving you money and earning it for your hosts, it is not necessary to provide freebie drinks.

Finally, when inviting people who write theatre blogs to see your production, be aware that you may be letting yourself in for a frank and direct review. You should note that the contents of this review may change considerably should your Vampire care to review my jugular vein.

01 November 2010

Or You Could Kiss Me - National Theatre, Saturday 30th October 2010

In the winter of 2036, in a shabby apartment in Port Elizabeth, two old men search for a way to say goodbye after a lifetime spent together. In the perfect summer of 1971, in a very different South Africa, their handsome younger selves search for the courage to fall in love. And poised halfway between these two stories – one imagined, one remembered – their real-life counterparts bear witness to both the beginning and the ending of an incredible journey.
Cast: /puppeteers:
Adjon Andoh
Basil Jones
Finn Caldwell
Adrian Kohler
Craig Leo
Tommy Luther
Mervyn Miller
Marcus Tilt
Creative team:
Director : Neil Bartlett
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Music: Marcus Tilt
Puppet design: Adrian Kohler

Lets face it – most of the audience were there to see the puppets. OK, all of the audience were there to see the puppets. . Most of them had probably seen War Horse. OK, all of them had seen War Horse. I think most of them were disappointed. OK, all of ….. well, I know I was. And after about an hour, I was thinking “Frankly, I’ve had enough of this”. And so, judging by the enormous amount of fidgeting going on, I think everyone else had as well. And so Handspring Puppet Company cynically played their ace card – a puppet dog. I say cynically because, up to this point, the dog has only been heard and imagined, not seen. The audience immediately perked up, stopped concentrating on the play and zeroed in on the dog. I’ve said it before (stop me if you’ve heard this one) that you can put on a fantastic, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza and the audience will enjoy it. Put a live animal into it and the audience will go beserk. It appears to work with puppet shows as well. Put on an experimental and extremely gloomy play about a difficult subject but make the main human characters puppets. And then put a puppet dog on the stage and your audience will love you. And your play.

I think Handspring have seriously misjudged their audience here. Sure, they don’t want to get pigeonholed into doing cutesy plays about farmyard animals but this is what their audience are waiting for, so they should have gone with something like Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty or maybe Charlotte’s Web. I’d have gone been head of the ticket queue for all three – and cried buckets at the end of the last two. War Horse was such a roaring success because it gave the public something they couldn’t normally have seen on stage. But, apart from the puppet dog, you could have done Or You Could Kiss Me with a cast of humans and nobody would have batted an eyelid. In fact, I predict that if the author wrote out the puppets he could sell his script to every drama school in the land and have it performed by angst-ridden teenagers dressed entirely in black at the Edinburgh Festival on a more or less annual basis. It was all a bit too self-consciously clever-clever and experimental for my tastes – and certainly not what I wanted to see. I wanted a puppet horse winning the Derby for its blind owner whose parents were killed in a car crash when he was five (or so he thinks…..) and whose evil landlord is about to foreclose on the farm - “Gee, Blackie. I sure am gonna miss this place. Look at that sunset. Shame about not being able to see the ducklings hatch next week. Unless, of course, you overcome all the odds, a major personal romantic crisis and that gammy leg – which you injured rescuing me from the abandoned well on the old Tucker place - and win the Derby tomorrow in front of Sally who can’t afford to leave her job at the restaurant and marry me” (cue music from Chariots of Fire and cut to Sally in the crowd at the racecourse selling her last pillowcase and putting the money on Blackie to win at 300:1 just before the starting gun). Now THAT’S a puppet show. Not the problems of two old South African men coping with the hospitalisation of one of them while remembering the golden summer when they were teenagers and first met on the beach while the rain pours down and the cleaner fields telephone calls from angry solicitors.

Having the teenagers and old men represented by puppets and their middle-aged selves by live actors was a decent idea, but not when both actors were bland and essentially unsympathetically portrayed. And having everyone dressed in black and constantly delivering their dialogue into handheld microphones while reacting to messages crackling out of an old answering machine was just so Sixth Form DramaSoc that I lost both my patience and all feeling in my right buttock. Never have an hour and 35 minutes passed so slowly (and with no interval – what is it with directors that nothing has an interval these days?) It all felt so god-dammed worthy and right on and it irritated the hell out of me when I wanted an essentially daft but heart-warming story with a friggin’ puppet horse in it. Give me what I want and I will love you for it and sing your praises in my review. Or, of course, You Could Kiss Me and I’ll leave the theatre unfulfilled and grumpy.

What the reviews said: