BATS
Manchester Royal Exchange
Opened 30 November, 1999

Look at them, the children of the night: what a hackneyed picture they make. No, not the cast of Bats, who revel in their stereotypes "I'm a Victorian hero!", Tristan Gemmill reminds himself as Jonathan Harker, "I'm dull and boring!" but the contingent from the Manchester Vampire Society who turned up for the first night. All black velvet, pallor, carefully lankened locks and fingerless black lacy gloves (all right, I exaggerate: they weren't actually fingerless), they sat en bloc in the front row and, er, didn't respond to this Dracula lampoon particularly strongly in any way, except to go, "Awww!" when Van Helsing trod on a plastic vampire bat.

Emil Wolk and Braham Murray's vampire spoof is billed as "a Dracula spectacula" (which may annoy the copyright owners of long-established vampire spoof The Dracula Spectacula), and visually, they certainly push the boat out... or rather, the bat-winged coach. Sinister, semi-organic Gothic columns adorn the stage, cloaked by enough dry ice to show up on weather satellite pictures, and even the scene-changing team is dressed at a couple of points as gargoyles. But is it funny?

The answer is a qualified yes. Wolk (who also plays the Count) and Murray cram in gags by the barrowload, many of them taking the mick out of the conventions of both Victorian vampire tales and stage adaptations: "I know I shall die early", confides Sarah Coombes as Lucy Westenra to her diary, and indeed spends the second act in increasingly desperate attempts to work herself into the proceedings in a series of cameo appearances; Mina (Phoebe Soteriades) is obsessed with travel timetables, and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Nick Caldecott) so dull that his very entrances make other characters yawn. Ben Keaton's Van Helsing (with an accent almost as bad as Laurence Olivier's in the 1978 film version) claims to "get all the Dutch jokes out of the way at once" in his first speech, but don't you believe it.

However, as with almost all parody, there must always be a firm foundation in the original; as Craig Brown explained recently, the humour comes from a tension between believing that it is and that it is not genuine. The less conviction actors put into their characters and the more knowingly they play it as parody, the less well it works. In this respect, Gemmill goes over the top most often, but even Wolk himself is not immune. Moreover, the second half falls prey to "top that" syndrome, and while the chases around the auditorium and gallery walkways grow ever more ludicrous, they also move further from any kind of story and become simply extravagant devices for their own sake. Although always amusing, it increasingly comes to lack, well, bite. I presume the Vampire Society simply felt they couldn't really get their teeth into it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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