Theatre: Dracula Hackney Empire, London
Theatre: Dracula

Hackney Empire, London

Laughter has its own etiquette. If you laugh at somebody slipping on a banana-skin on stage or screen, nobody will blink an eye (although they may think that you have a rather primitive sense of humour); if you laugh at somebody slipping on a banana-skin in the street, though, you will be branded unsympathetic at best, sociopathic at worst, and people may start avoiding your company.

The important difference lies in intention; it all depends whether the fall is meant as an invitation to laugh, or is a sheer (and possibly dangerous) accident. This is where James Gill's version of Bram Stoker's Dracula presents a quandary: is it a lithe, acrobatic clown we see bouncing on its bottom for our amusement here? Or are we watching a brittle-boned pensioner snapping a hip? Can we laugh, or should we be calling an ambulance?

Certainly there are moments of clearly intended humour. During the opening scenes at Count Dracula's home, the count tells his English guest Jonathan Harker, "We Transylvanians have a reputation for culinary inventiveness"; at this point, it's hard to be sure if the bathos is deliberate (Padraig Casey's thick Bela Lugosi accent doesn't do much to illuminate the matter). However, when Dr Van Helsing - another bizarre accent, from Philip Pritchard - concludes the climactic orgy of vampire-slaying with the suggestion "Now let us sample the Romanian cuisine", it is obvious that a joke has been made on purpose, though not a very funny one.

Little else is this clear-cut, though. It is impossible to know what to make of Harker's journey by coach to Castle Dracula, accompanied by people running across the back of the stage to present an illusion of movement; or of Dr Seward, leaping to ambush the Count with all the grace of a three-legged cat; of Dracula's absurdly performed assault on Lucy Westenra, her mother and two passing chambermaids. Any of these could be a joke, and all of them get big laughs; any of them, too, could be sincerely intended as drama, but ineptly executed.

And there are moments which seem to have been performed in all seriousness - the lady vampires' seduction of Harker, the terror Dracula wreaks aboard a ship bound for Whitby.

The matter is confused by the bizarre range of acting styles: Rachel West, as Lucy's mother, is out to raise all the laughs she can, with a camp, overstated poshness; Joanne Nemeth, as Mina Murray, gives the impression that she wouldn't know a joke if it jumped up and bit her (an impression strengthened when Padraig Casey does precisely that).

The most likely scenario seems to be that Gill set out to present a serious drama with a few jokes thrown in, but that, when the audience started to laugh, he gave in and went all out for comedy. The result is sporadically funny, more often embarrassing - sometimes because it is funny, sometimes because painfully unfunny. There's a third option with a pratfall: look away and pretend it never happened. In this case, that's the safest bet.

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Robert Hanks