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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Truestory bring us a Beltane Dracula, at The Spire St Mark’s Brighton, adapted and directed by Gary Sefton who takes the title role. Frankie Hun-Wah’s set creatively riffs off the environment it’s set in. Harrison White’s portentous but never spooked music deploys speaker systems. Richard Godin and Jon Stacy’s inspired use of lighting works through dry ice and much spatial use. Costumes are strict period – 1897.


We’re moving back a month or so in the imagination. Having revived an outstanding A Christmas Carol last year, originally from 2015, Truestory bring us a Beltane Dracula, at The Spire St Mark’s Brighton, adapted and directed by Gary Sefton who takes the title role. It’s produced by Mark Turnbull.


And what better than to set it in the teeth of Christianity, a recently-deconsecrated church? There’ve been many dramatic works staged in churches: enacting everything from Macbeth to marriage musicals in Brighton. This is by far the best use of such space I’ve seen. There’s Harrison White’s portentous but never spooked music with speaker systems; Richard Godin and Jon Stacy’s inspired use of lighting from all angles truly stretching the environment in light green hazes against dry ice and precise sue of faux-candles as it were. Such effects cast shadows.


These all set off Frankie Hun-Wah’s set creatively riffing off the environment it’s set in. It includes twelve feet cloaks, white sheets risen in storm-tossed sails and the billowing deep itself as Tom Wainwright’s Jonathan Harker lunges into it: Hun-Wah’s set is partly a live thing working with Sefton’s ensemble. There’s a diffusion of voices in speakers, adroit use of a portable cabinet and dry ice as well as the church’s own features like inner gates and the old altar, pre-sets of anxious doctors and madman Renfield (Joe Burns) wheeled on and off warning everyone. Who’ve been offered blood red wine and vampire gingerbread by men in white from the asylum pre-set for instance. Costumes are strict period – 1897. Mina’s and Lucy’s burgundy and white dresses, as well as the men’s and Dr Helsing’s apparel, are beautifully sourced and the thing you expect on a professional stage.


In a straight compressed retelling leaving very few details out, Sefton’s adaptation hurtles him and his ten colleagues across a smoke-clad floor where the audience in traverse are cheek-by-jowl with cloaked and candled apparitions, swirling choreography and a dance troupe of vampires intoning cleverly-wrought verse summaries, which uniquely perhaps focus on Dracula’s need for love.


Narrative’s intercut so hapless Harker’s stranded in Transylvania plays against Lucy’s being given shudders of bloody pleasure over in Whitby. Enforcing the original pace it allows details through parallel story-telling.


After Renfield’s outbursts and restraints we’re treated to the familiar story, Wainwright’s Harker being deposited by four horses and a coachman who don’t want to go near the apocalypse. Or the warning gypsy woman (Susie Sefton, one of her several well-etched vignettes). There’s a refreshing suite of such details. There’s much physical theatre earlier on, from Sefton’s initial entry ten feet tall here, and in the vampire wraiths fighting over Harker when he goes into the banned east wing. Even the bundle of cat gifted by Dracula to appease their hunger is given a cat-call as it were through speakers. The devil’s in the detail. These devils pack a lot in.


Burns’ Renfield is active throughout and his end is thrillingly done. He’s often accompanied by Kim Wright’s orderly, also a disastrous nurse and a relishing vampiress.


Sefton makes excellent use of his dark baritonal voice and his Transylvanian speech is nevertheless not too thickly accented, always a peril. He enjoys spectral command with a slight twist of melancholy. Wainwright seems every inch the rightly-shaved solicitor, nervous but resourceful, rather emotional when driven to his tethering – he’s not chained like Burns’ wonderful OTT Renfield but is often barred.


There’s good interaction between Wainwright and slow-burn Mina, Laura Schofield’s slightly ungrateful role when faced by the very vampish and overtly sexy Lucy, Miriam Grace Edwards’ hello of a part, acted with abandon from the start and tremendous physical verve, since Lucy’s always jumping up or rushing to embrace her luckless fiancé. Her final scene’s genuinely affecting.


Schofield’s Mina both elicits sympathy for the devil and her husband, and makes a rather prim role far more alive by humanising Sefton’s own underscore of her sexual avidity when finally drawn to Dracula, and making it more an emotional thing than the shockingly overt Lucy (a flirt after all..).


Emma Kilbey’s Dr Helsing is a fine Austrian creation though the thick accent in this acoustic make a very few words indistinct. It probably can’t be helped. Kilbey makes this role her own and though if you’re keeping strict period as here, a gender-fluid shift is just one of those things you take, Kilbey’s energy and dispatch convince you it’s always been thus.


The counterpointing of storytelling, the impaling of a re-awoken Lucy brilliantly aided by light, the seduction of Mena and her discovery by Helsing and the three suitors is all deftly retold. Patrick McHugh is a lovingly incredulous Arthur, Lucy’s fiancé so nearly taken by her in a wild-eyed ecstasy; Dr Jack from the asylum in Tom Jordan’s burly straightforwardness carrying a sad torch for Lucy, defeated by his own lack of self-worth; and Miles Mlambo’s Quincey who has less to do but cuts a sliver of distinction in his twang here. All neatly slant to Helsing’s tune.


Though set as Bram Stoker intended, there’s a final agency granted to Mina at the end that’s more satisfying than previous adaptations I’ve seen. Make no mistake, this is not just a stylish, brilliantly-acted retelling. It’s a satisfyingly creative use of an atmosphere turned for Diablorie over eleven days. Everything from verse storytelling and synchronous parallels is expertly compressed and delivered with the panache of an ensemble whose list of acknowledgements include Chichester Festival and Royal Derngate. The ensemble’s blocking is as infectious as it is faultless too. This really is the one-stop Dracula we need. Anything longer might invite another TV script. This, though, like the whiff of Dracula himself, is pure theatre.