Simon Ward reviews Dracula at Sutton House, Hackney
Like his fellow icons of horror, Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula has a cultural resonance out of all proportion to the few people who are familiar with the 19th-century source material. They seem to tap in to atavistic fears beyond anything their authors produced – ancient fears of the horrors that lurk in the dark, or worse, beyond the grave. And, of course, the Freudian undertones of sexuality are ever-present. The story of Dracula, in particular, evokes an ancient pre-history of myth and superstition with which we are all now familiar, as well as a weird erotic charge.
Tea Break Theatre have taken the bones of the Dracula story and woven it through with a site-specific story involving the (real) Sadler family who had Sutton House built in Tudor times and whose portraits adorn the walls of the wood-panelled room where the main action begins. The house, now owned by the National Trust, is a remarkable survival over many centuries, in spite of the Luftwaffe and slum-clearing councils. It provides a perfect backdrop for a chilling evening as we move among the rooms, courtyard and basement, and its very survival is given a sinister twist.
We know from the outset that this is an immersive experience based on the Dracula story in a spooky old house. We are asked to sign waiver forms, in which we name our blood-group and our deepest fear, in order to ramp up the tension. There is no getting away from an element of cheesiness here, which some will find rebarbative. For me, it worked brilliantly.
The conceit is that we are a tour group led by a slightly frazzled guide – played to perfection by Louise Wilcox – when things inevitably start going wrong. The gradual emergence of the cast from the crowd is very subtly done – they had blended in perfectly up to that point. Through the course of the evening the piece takes us back through the history of the house, from the present day, through the late-Victorian era of the novel itself to its Tudor origins. The actors carry off the variations in costume, tone and diction with aplomb.
One of the problems with an immersive work is the inevitable fear of missing out – the nagging sense that what happened just out of earshot, or that your group didn’t get to see, was actually the crux of the piece. Katharine Armitage’s direction ensures this doesn’t happen. Although at one point, names are called – those forms again – and we are divided into separate groups, this scene precedes the interval, thus allowing for comparing notes. Otherwise, we share the same experience, glad to be amongst fellow sufferers.
There is a pleasing mix of old and new technology throughout – we have projections as though from an iPhone and some sophisticated sound work – coupled with the loud bangs and plunges into darkness of an old-time séance.
How you react will depend on your susceptibility to this kind of thing. I found myself retreating frequently into the safety of the herd, although of course that safety may always prove illusory. At one point we were herded into a room and surrounded by eerie phantasmal creatures holding candles, chanting in Latin and closing us in…
It’s a tribute to the power of the show that the outside world, visible and sometimes audible through the windows, never broke the spell.
There is no curtain call so when we finally emerge blinking in the street lights, we have to assume that we have left the cast behind, cursed to repeat this night after night.
Perfect Halloween fare!
Dracula runs at Sutton House, Homerton High St, London E9 6JQ until 4th November, show starts at 7.30pm