After an extended hiatus due to Covid, it’s a pleasure to return to Chesil Theatre for their latest production, Liz Lochhead’s version of the classic Dracula story. There may have been an enforced gap between first rehearsals and finally getting back onto the stage, but the quality of Chesil’s productions is largely undiminished, despite the challenges of the past 20 months.
As the audience enters, the musical playlist combines with atmospheric subdued lighting and gentle haze to perfectly set up the gothic tone of the play. The pace is generally excellent throughout with smooth transitions between scenes and locations, even if occasionally to the detriment of diction and clarity from the less experienced actors.
Although the show’s publicity claims this is a modern adaptation, all the production elements have remained faithful to Bram Stoker’s original ethereal antihero (played by Steve Clark). Chesil Theatre is a small, intimate venue, but the four very different locations (an English garden, asylum cell, Dracula’s castle and a mausoleum) are clearly established with a deceptively simple open set design, and excellent lighting and sound effects.
Alec Walters gives a first class performance as asylum inmate, Renfield, seamlessly switching between the ramblings of his tortured mind and more lucid moments. Eleanor Marsden is equally impressive as Mina Westerman, whether poised and elegant as her character conforms to the expectations of a Victorian fiancée/wife, a somewhat maternal older sister to highly spirited Lucy, or struggling with her emotions around the eponymous vampire.
Zoe Stanford grows into the role of Lucy, from an irritating younger sibling to coquettish love-interest, to one of Dracula’s brides. Ed Gardiner (Mina’s fiancé/husband, Jonathan Harker) and Tez Cook (stepping into the role of Lucy’s suitor, Dr Arthur Seward) give strong support, both having moments of excellence as they battle their own demons as well as the evil threat from Transylvania. Claire Kerry shows much potential as she takes on multiple roles, as does Vicky Heaslip as the Westerman sisters’ maid.
There is a brilliant nod to Dracula’s otherworldly presence as all his dialogue echoes eerily, while the other characters’ voices are most definitely grounded and present in this world. So, it grieves me to find Dracula disappointing. Although secure in his demeanour and accent, an over-reliance on the prompt meant that tension, fear or suspense from his character was diminished.
However, Peter Andrews is outstanding as first the silent asylum employee, Drinkwater, then Dracula’s foil, Professor Van Helsing. Full of energy and verve, he masterminds Dracula’s downfall in commanding fashion, adding urgency and apprehension to proceedings.
Full credit goes to Marsden and Juliet Hawkes for a vast array of costumes, all appearing authentic to the period and well-suited to each character (Dracula’s Act 2 shoes, however, are more effective than his Act 1 boots in enabling him to move more silently in a mysterious way). There’s great attention to detail with props to ensure they’re in keeping with the late 19th century – and overall, this has been achieved to very good effect. There are also some subtle yet very effective touches with makeup to reflect Lucy falling ever further under Dracula’s influence, the bloodlust of the Count and his Brides, and Dracula’s wraithlike visage.
There is so much to enjoy about this production – and I invite you to take your fill (if you can get a ticket!). Dracula will be haunting Chesil Theatre until Saturday 27 November with performances at 7.45pm each evening.