Hackney Empire, London E8
Opened 4 February, 1998

The greatest heckle I have ever heard was aimed, rather pointlessly, at a cinema screen. During the scene in the turgid 1979 movie version of Dracula in which Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier, complete with his all-purpose European accent) and Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve, plainly straight off the set of Shoestring) were cautiously approaching the Count's coffin, unsure whether or not he was in there, a wag in the front row called out, "Open the box! Take the money! Open the box!..." Were someone to have yelled the same line during Hackney Empire Studio Productions' version of the Bram Stoker tale, the evening's aggregate entertainment value would have been boosted geometrically.

Adaptor/director James Gill and his cast know well that the script contains intentional humour but play every line, comical or gothic, with the same stilted deliveries and tentative mood, so that an audience can rapidly decide that they are laughing at the proceedings out of derision, and hoot down much more than they are intended to; this, indeed, is what happened on the press night, as a group of lads behind me howled like the children of the night at every other line. Admittedly, some of the lines do clang like a half-full spittoon, notably Van Helsing's advice to Jack Seward, "Now, my friend, I suggest that you drink plenty of tea," and the same character's closing exhortation: "We have accomplished our task, and now let us sample some of the Romanian cuisine!"

These gems are delivered in a distinct Dutch accent, but as virtually everyone in the company adopts a strange voice, Phillip Pritchard's Van Helsing does not stand out too much. Lucy Westenra speaks in an exaggerated girlish peal; her mother is plainly a forebear of Hyacinth Bucket; Dr Seward adopts a strangled basso boom which indicates exceptionally severe toilet training as an infant; and Padraig Casey's Slavic accent as the Count himself is delivered in a drawl reminiscent of a minor cross-bencher on a slow day in the House of Lords.

As the company name suggests, the production has transferred to the Empire proper from the studio theatre behind the pub next door, and this may well have been its undoing. Rosa Pascal's set makes ingenious use of gauzes, and Michael Robertson's lighting design keeps things suitably gloomy, but for all the phalanges of extras and detailed attention to costuming (this is the only programme I have ever seen to credit a shoe designer), the pace feels at best tentative and at (frequent) worst leaden. Some nice use is made of stage blood, of course (although the gore-filled condoms do not always seem to burst to order) at one point, unless I am mistaken, we even get a spontaneously combusting crucifix but the show as a whole is chronically anaemic.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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