Tuesday, 14 February 2012


To the Theatre Royal at Bury St Edmunds for the first production of StageFright by Michael Punter, directed by Colin Blumenau.

Set 1894 during the run of Sir Henry Irving's  "Faust", the action takes place on a night with winter weather so foul that it traps Sir Henry and his theatre manager, Bram Stoker, in an attic dressing room in the eaves of the Lyceum theatre in London.

By coincidence, the temperature on Saturday in Suffolk was -7C during the day and -12C at night, so the audience came in having just experienced the sucking cold of an icy grave.

Bram Stoker was writing Dracula in those days, summoning him up from the influences of theatre, religion, secular philosophy and his own Irish talent - under-estimated by Iriving - so that there seems to be another character, one who never appears, threaded through the work.

It is believed that Irving disapproved of Dracula - he is said to have walked out of a reading and never played the part, although it would have been natural to offer it to him. It is also possible that Conan Doyle saw the pair working and fed that in to his own creations, Holmes and Watson, recognizing it to be much more than a case of an employer and a technical manager.

Irving  was a self-made man and he knew exactly what he was doing; creating effects on the stage. Even his name was partly an illusion, re-fashioned because it sounds so much better than John Henry Brodribb.   Michael Punter gives Irving all the doubt and superstition which goes with the job of acting no matter how hard Irving tries to stick to rational responses.  If you spend your working life summoning up illusory characters, isn't there a risk of calling up something real, Irving wonders, of speaking the Devil's name and having him answer. Perhaps he is always listening for the invitation, like an actor waiting for his stage-call on the other end of a speaking-tube?

Stuck for that freezing night in an attic, the pair of them begin to discourse on this - or rather, Irving declaims and Stoker sets up the lines for him, because that is how their relationship works. They think they are alone but an empty theatre is never completely empty; you have to be careful what you do, what you say because you never know who may be listening. Could a building record the events which happen in it, Irving muses.  If you ask the staff of Marks and Spencer just a few yards away in the modern shopping centre in Bury St Edmunds they will tell you yes, and the building doesn't even have to exist any more. They still get half-ghosts of monks wading through their sales floor and sinking down staircases which have not existed for centuries.

The snow falls outside and soon Irving and Stoker begin to suspect they are not alone.

The Theatre Royal is an 1819 building, beautifully refurbished for a modern audience, so that this is the perfect intimate place to watch a play which aims to recreate the conventions of Victorian stage and parlour magic.   The set has been constructed to nudge out in to the auditorium, dissolving the line between stage and seats so that we are invited to float in the dingy cluttered room, a spectral presence, as if hovering at a seance table.  This is the world where lighting is by gas; that is the product of science and an advanced economy but gas light is still soft and variable and is delivered in fittings which resemble the old oil lamps.  We are looking in to a dusty jewel-box of enchantment and treasure.

The director and author were adamant; to capture the rich flavour of  High Victoriana it had to include stage illusions which the Victorians would have expected in a theatre they would have recognized. Drama had not yet reached the naturalistic psychological approach which is most common today.  Stoker and Irving squabble about this;  Stoker has all the best technical arguments but Irving's case is made in the play itself; there's no mistaking the jump of the audience when .... spoilers, sweetie.

The premier run of Stagefright is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
From Tuesday 14 February until Saturday 25 February
Tickets cost between £8 and £20 depending on seat and performance, bookable online (scroll down and select date).

For some locations in Suffolk, the theatrebus deal is available which includes transport, the ticket, a drink and the programme.  All tickets: £23  For under 26’s: £11.50

Concessions are available including the £5 on-the-day for under 26 year olds, but must be booked via the box office: 01284 769505

The performance is suitable for anyone over 8 years old but is genuinely frightening.

No comments: