first night

The House Of Dracula

Carrie Gaunt dives into the weird and wacky with the HBT Fresher's Play.

 Ever wondered what kind of carnage ensues when you mix Dr Frankenstein, Count Dracula, an American werewolf and a girl called Isabel? 'House of Dracula' aims to answer this question with the aid of a variety of Hammer Horror stalwarts, all enjoying the dubious hospitality of Transylvania's favourite blood-sucker, and the effects are horrifying and hilarious in equal measure. With this promising script, HBT have the bare bones of an excellent Freshers' Play, but the finished product is slightly rough around the edges.

I will not risk sounding like a broken record by once again enumerating the various inadequacies of Caedmon Hall as a venue, but I will say that the Hall takes no prisoners acoustically and here it really shows. I would estimate that a good 50% of the dialogue was entirely incomprehensible, and whilst the venue must bear some of the responsibility for this, poor stage craft (with many lines disappearing into the wings) and a bevy of erratic assumed accents contribute disproportionately. The script, whilst relying possibly over-much on a punny kind of humour just as likely to provoke wry groans as laughs, does offer plenty of witty treats and deserves far more considered handling than it received tonight - there is no shame in spoon-feeding an audience the really funny moments in order to ensure that they really get the most out of them. As it was, many of what I considered the laugh-out-loud lines were submerged or glossed over, and the effect was nowhere near as riotous as it could have been.

This is not to say that the cast lack energy - there is bucketloads of get-up-and-go here, but it feels misplaced and uncontrolled. Characterisation feels, in places, a little hollow and lacking in conviction, but not quite one-dimensional or larger-than-life enough to make the production work as an outright parody of the Hammer Horror genre (which would be a perfectly plausible interpretation of the script and arguably would have been the best possible direction for this production to take - boldness tends to work better in large venues like Caedmon than anything more subtle). I think director Emily Fox perhaps needed to be a little clearer in her approach - whether the play should be pure slapstick comedy or something more nuanced. As it is, the production rests somewhere between naturalism and satire, and the overall effect is jarring. By no means do I mean to infer that the acting is not good - I particularly enjoyed Ed Rees' charismatic and dry Count Dracula, all the more commendable for a well-sustained and clear accent. Lizzie Russell is another strong performer and I felt that her characterisation was the most consistent, although perhaps slightly more abandon after consuming Dr Jekyll's mysterious potion (no sniggering at the back) would have made for a more striking contrast. When all the performers are working together and bouncing off each other the effects can be stunning - the 'mummy chase' in Act 2 was a gloriously frenzied, well choreographed moment, straight out of an episode of Scooby-Doo, and it brought a genuine smile to my face. It was one of the first times that I felt all the performers were united in the effect they were aiming to create and consequently one of the most successful and memorable points of the evening.

Technically the production really shines - the set in particular is fabulous, lots of extra nooks and crannies creating a plausible 'crumbling old castle' atmosphere whilst at the same time ensuring that the large ensemble cast have plenty of space. The use of red and green washes in the lighting, accompanied by regular claps of thunder, feels slightly tongue-in-cheek (perhaps another satirical nod to the melodramatic Hammer Horror era), which I liked - it felt witty and sardonic, a sarcastic wink-wink-nudge-nudge from the lighting desk to the audience. There were a few instances where sound cues could be tightened but generally the Tech Team (under the guidance of Tech Director Wen Liu) deserve a great deal of praise.

There is an awful lot of potential in 'House of Dracula' - particularly as everyone involved is a fresher, a newcomer to HBT and to the tricky beast that is Caedmon Hall. Whilst there are certainly areas that require attention, it is lovely to see a production where everyone involved is clearly having an absolute blast. And if that isn't a brilliant introduction to DST, then what is?

28 November 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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