Halloween isn’t complete without a fresh offering from the Exeter Alternative Theatre. This year they present ‘A Dark Victorian Cabaret’ which is considered the company’s most ambitious project to date.
It may seem tedious that every year I describe the atmosphere of stepping into the auditorium as being like stepping back in time, but there is something about the way they dress the Barnfield Theatre that makes their production feel like a complete experience of a specific time and place rather than simply going to watch a play.
As the group have grown in confidence so they have presented more original performance. They have had a taste of what interests them from the scripts of others and have spent a lot of time and energy devising their own work to present. The night busily bursts with good ideas, lifting the scariest and sexiest sections of Dracula and the story of Jack the Ripper and mixed in with a seance and the story they really want to tell, the opening of the Theatre Royal, Exeter on Monday 7 October 1889, two years after the theatre on the same site was lost to fire.
There are lovely sinister creations through the night, with Midge Mullin as John Acland in Phil Kingslan John’s ‘Before Dracula’ a highlight in a short yet funny sketch early in the evening. Mullin then takes a writing credit alongside Rosie Mullin for ‘And Then There Was One’ where Ben Rodwell gives a memorable portrayal as John Sanders, a physician restrained as a suspect for the Jack the Ripper killings, here some nice lighting and cunning use of silhouette allows Louis Ravensfield as the narrator to reveal a poetic imagining of the men behind the killings. In turn it is Louis Ravensfield that writes and directs ‘Miss Johnson’s Seance’, the scariest play of the night, giving the audience a ringside seat with some proper jumpy moments as Morwenna Griffith capably leads the action as the haunting Miss Johnson.
Between the plays there is much to entertain, titillate and spook, with a range of cabaret covered from The Phantom Juggler to The Living Doll, these acts brought smiles, laughter and just the right amount of creepiness. There was a song from Kitty Brunel and some fascinating performance from Lilly Laudanum as the sauciest Queen Victoria you’ll see on stage and Venus Noir presenting an absinthe fairy like no other. Top and tail your night with a Can-Can from The Flaming Feathers and you get a sense that the drama is a sideshow to the range of performance these producers imagine.
There were two linking narratives to guide the audience through the night. Firstly, Jon Lee as the Master of Ceremonies bringing plenty of pomp to the evening, encouraging the audience to take part in the performance. Secondly there was the story of ‘The Chorus Girls’ written by Emma Ravensfield and directed by Sharlene Young, presented the story of life in the dressing room at the Theatre Royal on opening night. Their story joined seamlessly with the acts around them as a number of sequences were dispersed through the evening.
The girls, played by Katie Jones, Carolyn Macey and Sarah Prentice, allowed an intriguing sense of voyeurism on the night, as we watched them prepare for a performance we will never see. They exchange stories of life in the theatre, and their private conversations provide a clever introduction to the act that follows.
It may be that I am showing ignorance of how things were back in the day, but my one grumble of the night was the lengthy blackouts between acts. A spotlight on the MC giving a bit of bluster from the side of the stage might have tightened up the scene changes and allowed the evening to flow more tidily than the gaps provided, instead we sat through a set dressing, then an introduction, then a performance – no doubt the pace of these changes will quicken up as they build to the final performance.
Even this cannot impact on the quality of the various performances, there was something for everyone who likes a bit of darkness from the theatre, a resounding success for the production team. The Exeter Alternative Theatre continue to lead the way in thrilling performance with a taste of the macabre. The Dark Victorian Cabaret continues at the Barnfield Theatre until Saturday 3 November 2012.
For more information visit: www.eattheatre.co.uk
Last review for Exeter Alternative Theatre: Grand Guignol