Is there such a thing as an old British manor without a spooky history that creeps hauntingly into the present? At Mandacrest the house and its residents, new and old, are plagued by werewolves, vampires, mummies, and the tragic deaths of a boy and his mother. Just when it seems the mystery has been solved, another spectre rises from the dead as a reminder of the evil that lurks on the moors.
Written in 1984, Charles Ludlam’s script is a satirical send-up of the Victorian melodrama, the penny dreadful, and sinister supernatural tales. With a history told through the perspective of the cynical housekeeper Jane (Paul Sztelma), the story covers all of the tropes of mysterious death, the new wife, supernatural beings, and a quick dip into British orientalism with a side trip to Egypt. Three years ago the lady of the house Lady Irma Hillcrest died after her son was killed on the property and Lord Hillcrest (Sztelma) held her beloved hound Victor responsible. Now a new Lady Enid Hillcrest (Richard Littlehales) has moved in and the house is displaying its discontent with wolves howling through the night, violent home invasions, and the haunting gaze of Lady Irma Hillcrest’s portrait watching it all. Lord Hillcrest suspects his research into Ancient Egypt has awakened something other-worldly from the tomb of She Who Sleeps but One Day Will Wake. Is it possible he has discovered the key to immortality and disrupted the natural order?
As can be imagined in a satire of the sensationalism of the penny dreadful and the melodrama, the plot of the Mystery of Irma Vep was ridiculous and convoluted with plenty of unexplained gaps, leaps in reasoning, and rife convenience. The chaos was only amplified the fact that it’s a two-hander with the actors sharing some eight characters between them. Director Meredith Jacobs leant into the humour of unpredictability and theatrical in-jokes with visible backstage crew participation and a general raucous approach to the production. The cleverer aspects of the quick-changes and slights-of-hand were impressive and often distracted from the otherwise regrettable aspects of a 40-year-old comedy with occasional misogyny and a blindingly white representation of British colonialism in Egypt.
The set design by Trevor Chaise was an elaborate affair of a manor house with flagstone flooring, royal blue walls, and velvet furniture. Annette Snars’s costuming appropriately suited the era with Lord Hillcrest dressed like a royal at Balmoral, Jane in a prim, professional maid’s uniform, and Lady Hillcrest a damsel in scarlet satin. The lighting design by James Winters played to the satirical nature of the production with the occasional dramatic spotlight cutting through the otherwise “natural” design.
With two actors juggling so much between them, it’s impressive enough for them to make all of their cues but Sztelma and Littlehales brought a frenzied, lively energy to their performances that was enjoyable to watch. In particular, Sztelma was entirely convincing as Jane with her rural English accent and forceful personality, as well as when playing the proud, grieving Lord Hillcrest. The way he ricocheted between them formed the central column of the story, supporting the old house and its history even as it began to crumble under supernatural forces. Opposite him, Littlehales was feisty as the thespian-turned-second-wife Lady Hillcrest and a crowd favourite as the rough barn hand Nicodemus. At times, though, his unbridled energy meant he ran through lines at such a pace as to be unintelligible, which certainly added to the atmosphere if not the plot.
Bad theatre has stood as the backbone of the industry for centuries and there is plenty to love about unrealistic stories, excessive characterisation, and unbelievable twists of fate. The Mystery of Irma Vep invites audiences to revel in the sweet, sweet pleasures of exuberant satire.
The Mystery of Irma Vep is running at the Pavilion Theatre from March 18th – April 9th
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