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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Low Down

Directed by Shaun Hughes, Set Designer and Build David Rankin and LLT Workshop Team, Light and Sound Design and Special Effects Trevor Morgan. Costumes Claire Chapman and LLT Wardrobe Team. Stage Manager Joanne Cull, ASM Nathan Croft, Prompt Sylvia Aston.

Till October 8th


Funny how people dream the same dream. Or is that Dream? Walpurgis Night might come nearly two months before midsummer, but six of his cast and director Shaun Hughes return from LLT’s last production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the storm-change of Robert Hamilton’s ingenious one-set adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula: where actual and potential victims dream the sleep of reason and get monstered.

I wrote of that Dream: ‘There’s an exciting sense of being at the cusp of a new generation, where young talent benefits from experienced actors like (Chris) Parke and (Robert) Hamilton (in particular), (Alan) Carter and (Simon) Hellyer who set the pace.’ That sense continues here, a sense of a repertory pool of actors who can listen to and trust each other implicitly.

Returning with Hamilton (who also stars as Van Helsing) and Hellyer (Dr John Seward)  are Anthony Bannister as Dracula, Trish Richings as Housekeeper Swales, and two of the young quartet, Tim Telford (as Carmila, one of two Brides of Dracula, in a natty Adam and the Ants 18th century jacket) and Adelaide Barden’s distressed but ultimately resourceful young Mina Murray, whose friend Lucy (Melodie Gibson), Dr Seward’s daughter, is already sexily un-dead by the time we meet her.

Creatives return too for the most part: David Rankin’s set (bult with the Team) is more elaborate this time. Dr Seward’s study features two free-standing (and moveable) library shelves upstage where to their left is an ill-fated balcony, often striped with lightning and pale figures beckoning. Sofa, chairs, to their right a desk with horned gramophone and morse buzzer complete the latest technology Stoker equipped his story with. The backdrop though is porous, enough for library books to enlarge and for the whole to dissolve into red with a silhouette of a fetching person shrieking as they’re staked.

Trevor Morgan this time uses the surround flicker of light and sound to telling effect. What sounds like Enescu’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in F minor arcs foreboding over all. Claire Chapman helms costumes to a ravishing sumptuousness straight from late Victorian plates, down to the eau de nil look of crinoline and Mina’s dress of greyish lavender. Slashings of scarlet and black for the men too.

There’s demonic laughter round the auditorium, but quite a number of Hamilton’s tweaks to Stoker mean we laugh too. Hamilton writes an erudite intro to his adaptation, choices and sources: mostly Stoker, and aware of how accretions – like Dracula’s evening dress in the first staged version of 1924 – augment the original.

It was Hazlitt who noted watching Edmund Kean was like seeing Shakespeare in flashes of lightning. It’s not just the effects, but Hamilton’s slash-forward storytelling too, as Tom Messner’s very fine RM Renfield jollies himself downstage from Prague by jump-cuts to Dracula’s castle, terror, and incarceration as a lunatic in Dr Seward’s asylum. Messner’s is a very fine performance throughout, full of twitches, jumps and gibbering with bouts of appalled rationality; and he’s involved here in the climax.

Necessarily we need to cut through the plot to the two—hour-forty we’re in Dr Seward’s study. So Lucy’s already died and her friend Mina beset by strange marks as Hamilton’s Van Helsing arrives to comfort and counsel his old star pupil, Hellyer’s restless imposing Seward, already distraught at Lucy’s mysterious anaemia and death. He’s not alone: Chloe Franks’ Lady Agatha Holmwood arrives too, with solicitude for Mina, as does initially unwelcome and much-sidelined Jonathan Harker of Vito Taskin.

Taskin has more to do to build up the rather boring Harker (who even claims it of himself) and shines more in the second act with some agency and courage. Franks’ Lady Holmwood has more to answer: not least to leasing one of her late husband’s most unpleasant properties to the fascinating but exquisitely repulsive Count Dracula, here in Whitby. But is that the only property she’s leased? And what did drive Lord Holmwood to do as he did?  Franks rises to a complex part: part thoroughly decent lady, part hiding dreadful Victorian secrets, part mastered by dark forces.

Since everything takes place – bar that silhouetted staking, told in flashback and necessary to the tale – Hamilton ingeniously condenses the action. This involves stage right an impressively padded for lunatics, managed by Nick Cooper’s Head Warder Hennessey who pops convincingly in and out; and to the left the house managed by Richings’ Swales: Richings is required to swear a lot and apologise for it, a nearly charactered housekeeper not far from Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights. Both she and Cooper as the anxious watchful and prompt Hennessey are admirably supportive, and Richings has much to sideswipe at – bats, belfries, vampires garlic and the like.

Emily Feist as another Bride of Dracula, Mircalla romps in her double-act with Telford: terrible twins, they delight in mischief, even if it is sucking of souls. Gibson’s Lucy joins them towards the climax, before she’s released from her frolics with a shriek. Gibson’s given a few flashback moments as a beset young woman comforted by Barden, though in this truncated telling she’s necessarily mostly vamp. Which she thoroughly enjoys.

Barden, after her fine Helena, has less expressive range to weigh with, but make a nuanced transition between fright, darkly-awakened sexuality (just watch what she does with Taskin’s shy Harker), defiance and sudden switches of mood as sunset makes her scornful, irritable and later, despairing. Hamilton’s text is ripe for inducing mind-control chiefly in Renfield, but in all the tohers, even Harker. Only Van Helsing’s wholly able to resist.

Taking a cue from The Devil Rides Out  as we’ve only got this study – the staking of Lucy means Dracula can come to the study-girdled, garlic-strewn Mina just before the others return. We have a stand-off, a pouring of salt round a magic circle and Dracula from the – well, find out.

Hellyer’s always watchable, ranging and commanding in his clarity. He tends to pace a lot as distracted Seward, and captures the rational scientist, though is lent small spaces to explore the grieving father. Pace means this is less explored in this condensation of character, and stillness can be telling.

Bannister’s no stranger to the dark. Who can forget his guilt-inflected but compulsive character in David Harrower’s Blackbird in 2011, where he plays a paedophile confronting his grown victim in a devastation of mutual need? He has the height and presence for the role. He’s disturbing too. The truly frightening, as well as sexy – Dracula exerts magnetic sexual responses from all women in his presence in this version – would be beyond anyone immediate I can think of, though even here, in this (only in asides) wittily irreverent take, it’s still key. This Dracula isn’t often onstage, so presence and report is built up instead: when Bannister is, he’s for the most part required to be elegantly inviting or wrap victims in his cloak, which he does with aplomb. Bannister rises to that final jeering speech too.

Still, this is Hamilton’s play, as actor too. He never guys Van Helsing, but allows the humour that so often erupts a twinkling moment: ’You’d give your last drop of blood Harker? Well, not yet’ is blazoned as a filigree of wit on a sombre coat. There’s much dialogue around rationality, and Hamilton and Hellyer engage in much, with Barden an Takin sceptics turned terrible witness by the end, as Messner’s madness is revealed for utter sanity as events turn.

Hamilton has both a ferocious agency, ripping round the stage or dead still, and an eloquence turning the often lengthy speeches into modes of action, that he’s completely believable. Above all he possesses a truth that radiates and inflects the others’ performances. The ensemble respond to him, as he manage humour, passion, devastating clarity and at least a ritualistic fervour born of belief, that’s transfixing: a word Dracula will learn from a surprising source.

The denouement is witty, and there’s a twist you’ll need to see, and wonder if you really want it. There’s much to relish in this retelling and re-jigging of Dracula, and Hamilton’s stagecraft, choices and use of character ensuring hidden shallows reveal hidden abysms is often novel. This version should be published and used widely.

Hughes will doubtless attend to some voices just occasionally dropping at the end of lines, and some younger actors once or twice straying outside their truth to approximate a feeling. Again, this is a tidal moment in LLT’s history, and what happens with new talent of all ages over the next few years particularly inspiring. Hughes directs with a sense of wanting to let the uncut parts breathe more. It could do with picking up, but this night’s the second, and will by the end of its run. Which you should see.