Christmas Shows: Review: It'll be all bite on the night

BATS ROYAL EXCHANGE MANCHESTER
IF YOU'VE not already decided where to spend Millennium Eve it's unlikely to be Transylvania or even Whitby after you've seen Bats, the "Dracula spectacula" newly created by Emil Wolk and Braham Murray with apologies to Bram Stoker. In fact, you might seriously feel the urge to rush to the nearest blood donor unit, so much of the stuff is squirted around in the course of this vampire circus. Thank goodness the front seats were occupied by members of Manchester's Vampire Society, who were lapping it up.

The ensemble cast rises above their roles, suggesting that there were probably many more fingers than just Murray's and Wolk's in this ghoulish conceit, a spoof on Stoker's famous tale. More ham than Hammer, Murnau on speed perhaps, it's a hocus-pocus of topical allusions to popular culture, local references and cinematic dimensions to the sort of thrills, spills and ingenious special effects that had the press night audience of grown- up kids shrieking hysterically.

I suppose even a spoof has to set up some kind of story, but the opening scene of diary entries and extracts from letters presented by each character seems overlong. Jonathan Harker's journey, on which he encounters some pretty weird Transylvanians, at last sets the scene for the entrance of the star of the show, Count Dracula. The deadly force of evil is sent up brilliantly by Emil Wolk, deliciously hampered by his false fangs and frequently foiled in his attempts to get his teeth into the jugular.

Wolk and Murray's outrageous mix of Gothic fantasy and vaudeville brings together a wildly divergent range of acting styles and ideas most of which, with the right pace and inflection for the script, come off against the odds. One person's joke is another's groan, and humour like this is difficult to handle.

Slipping in and out of plot and character is trickier still, but when Lucy Westenra (Sarah Coomes), who dies drained of blood and staked through the heart, turns into an aspiring starlet determined not to be written out of the show, the consequences are very funny.

Having seen him as Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers it's hard to imagine Ben Keaton doing anything other than create mayhem, and he doesn't disappoint as the vampire hunter extraordinaire Professor Van Helsing. Bruce O'Neil, with apologies to Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Barry Manilow clearly has an ear for the visual, creating a vividly colourful musical commentary, well matched by expressionist lighting, and a parodic set and costumes complete with pop-up style castles in the air, cobwebby gargoyle pillars, and macabrely-dressed Un-Dead. It's all giddily mobile, reaching a sustained crescendo in the breathless final sequences. You'd be bats to miss it.

Lynne Walker

To 8 Jan, (0161-833 9833)

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