Review by Luke Billingham, with Georgia & Charla (Hackney Quest young people)
A Tea Break Theatre production
Reviewed at Sutton House, Hackney
For ages 15+

I went to Sutton House quite a few times as a child, and Georgia & Charla did too. The much-loved Tudor house is visited by most Hackney kids. But none of us, nor many other Hackney locals, had experienced it quite like we did for Dracula. What started out seeming like an evening tour turned into something very different.

We were ushered up to the Great Chamber, and our shy-looking tour guide Elizabeth (Emily Essery) began telling us about the history of the room and the building. It quickly became apparent, though, that she wasn’t feeling too great. Her nervous ticks and hesitations unnerved us all, and sent whispers around the room. “Something’s going on, you know, she don’t look right,” Georgia muttered to me. In one corner of the room, a couple didn’t bother whispering. They loudly complained about the guide, and began discussing her with another couple.

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Gradually the actors among the audience emerged, but with enough subtlety that an excited uncertainty was created in the room. “Imagine if everyone’s in on it except us!” Charla whispered. When this sort of atmosphere is created skilfully, you can’t help but look around at everyone else, trying to judge whose outfits look a little too well-devised, or whose whisperings look a bit contrived. The effect certainly added to the initial murmurings of anxious tension.

The murmurings soon grew, as unexpected thuds and unexplained behaviours took us deeper into the story. Something was up in the house, and this was greeted with frenzied glee by one of our fellow “tourists” (Jon-Paul Rowden), who grabbed papers from his bag and spread them across the floor. Strewn at our feet was a mixture of olden days newspapers and annotated Google maps, all focused on the local area, and all tales of mysterious disappearances. Faced with scepticism (“Well, it is a pretty rough area!”), our conspiracy theorist began to explain that there were just too many coincidences in too small a location. “All of this has happened within just a few square miles of this very house!”

As the story developed, our fellow tourists were transformed in time and into familiar characters from Stoker’s legendary tale: Elizabeth is Renfield, the conspiracy theorist becomes Val Helsing, the lead sceptic becomes Dr Seward (Bonny Davis), and the most troubled of the tourists becomes Lucy (Jennifer Tyler), whose partner Arthur (Jeff Scott) paces around whilst her health deteriorates. The Harkers, Jonathan and Mina (Christ Dobson and Molly Small) argue about how best to respond to the increasingly harrowing goings-on.

The tour continued, though now so that we could follow the action: we moved to a smaller room to see a séance, and then on to another to witness Lucy’s tormented sleep. At one stage different portions of the audience were taken off to different places, and again anxiously excited whispering was fostered: having been in three different places, Georgia, Charla and I quickly exchanged notes on what seemed to be going on.

As the story darkens, so did the house, and we were taken down to the basement chapel for the finale. Like much of the performance, the final act ably mixed horror and humour, and the play finished on a droll twist which left the audience chuckling with amusement rather than chucking up their dinner.

The shifts of era and of setting helped ensure that Dracula made good use of its historic set, and the performance was masterfully crafted: when moving from room to room and century to century, you couldn’t help but be carried along by the story, and impressed by its intricacy. When the gents bounded into the hall newly attired with ruffs, Georgia couldn’t help a gasp: “They’re Tudors now!”

In terms of terror, perhaps the house’s potential could have been better-exploited. Moments of pitch black tended to be short-lived, as did the suspense created by the mysterious thumps and creaks: if the intention was to really shake our nerves, more could have been done. If you went to Dracula hoping to be truly terrified, I think you will have been a little disappointed. I doubt any of the audience members will have had nightmares that night. But if you went to be spooked and entertained, you certainly will have got your wish. “I don’t think I was ever really scared, but it definitely freaked me out a couple of times, and I definitely had a good time!” (Charla).

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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