I’m not sure if it’s the imminent arrival of Halloween or theatre producers tapping into the zeitgeist but there is a plethora of gothic horrors on at the moment around town. There’s Frankenstein at Brockley Jack, the London Horror Festival at The Red Lion which includes The Curse Of The Mummy and The Raven and in a slightly lighter vein, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. And now added to that list is Tea Break Theatre’s site-specific, immersive, promenade production of Dracula at Hackney’s oldest residential building (c1535), Sutton House.
The evening started well when a group of about thirty of us were called to order by a tour guide who said she’d be showing us around the house before the play started. This was just the first of a number of pieces of misdirection as our tour guide was, in fact, part of the company of actors. We were all assembled in the Great Chamber as the ‘tour guide‘ started to tell us about the history of the house but she was obviously spooked by something unseen and kept stumbling over her words. Then there was a sudden scream as a number of (rubber) spiders dropped on one of the group who became extremely agitated. Then there were a number of bangs and crashes, a couple fainted and the lights went out – it was a scary start. It soon became obvious that five or six of the audience were in fact actors and the drama had begun. It took a while to work out which of the assembled group weren’t what they seemed. Was the man with the long grey hair and floppy hat one of them? I even started to doubt my companion – we were all on edge not knowing what would happen next! A phone belonging to ‘Jonathan Harker‘ that had gone missing in Romania was found in a draw in the room.
We were then split up into smaller groups and I was part of a group that went into the basement where the ‘tour guide‘ who was in fact “Elizabeth Renfield” was locked up as she was insane. Others were taken to different rooms and quizzed on their fears and my companion was part of a group of three who were taken into a bedroom. There my companion was asked to look after the missing phone as well as being given a rosary to hold – presumably, to ward off any stray vampires. Unfortunately, the first thirty minutes or so were the highlight of the evening. After that, it wasn’t very scary and the narrative started to ramble and become a bit incoherent. The action went back in time, first to the late 19th century when Bram Stoker’s novel is set and then to around the time Sutton House was built in the early 16th century with costume changes to match. But by then it had turned into a slightly, dull drama that had we not been in such an interesting space, would have been a little boring. There were a couple of occasions when I was expecting some kind of coup de théâtre which would have added the wow factor but unfortunately, they never came. Just turning the lights off to scare people loses its effect eventually.
The concept of a different take on the Dracula legend is an interesting one but it just never quite took off. It wasn’t helped by having a twenty-minute interval half-way through which lost all momentum as well as any tension that had been building and the second act just never really got going again.
The seven-strong cast did their best with material that just wasn’t quite sharp enough to keep the audience riveted. However, they may have themselves to blame as the piece was written by director Katherine Armitage “from workshops with the cast”.
With thirty minutes cut from the script, no interval and possibly better use of the amazing space that is Sutton House, Dracula would be worth at least another star from this critic. However, at the end of the evening, there just wasn’t enough to get your teeth into!
Review by Alan Fitter
Based on Bram Stoker’s classic text, and set within the historic rooms of the Tudor Sutton House, this electrifying interpretation, full of twists and turns, shines a light on some of the forgotten identities in the original novel.
Dracula is a theatrical journey that will lead audiences into the darkest corners of the house and the deepest depths of their nightmares. This is a haunting and visceral promenade experience that will transport visitors back in time to discover a legacy of blood that stretches through the ages.
Tea Break Theatre presents Dracula
Sutton House, 2 and 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London, E9 6JQ
Tuesday 17th October – Saturday 4th November 2017
Producer Tea Break Theatre
Writer Katharine Armitage and the company
Director Katharine Armitage
Designer Isobel Power Smith
Musical Director Felicity Sparks
Cast Chris Dobson, Molly Small, Jeff Scott, Jennifer Tyler, Jon-Paul Rowden and Louise Wilcox
Sutton House, 2 and 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London, E9 6JQ.