Comedian and playwright Richard Bull has trodden the Artworks Theatre boards long enough to know how to cope with stage fright.
But for the premiere of Dracula, the first full-length play he’s written and directed, he was as nervous as an expectant father and as pale as the undead in his vampire spoof.
It had been a long labour – getting the production to the stage took 18 months of writing, rehearsals and fine-tuning – not helped by the financial wobbles that afflicted Artworks late last winter.
He needn’t have fretted. As he watched helplessly from the stalls, the Funnybones team and a cast of old pros breathed life into his “baby” on opening night, with lots of spanking and red hot poker jibes to help things along.
This is Bram Stoker’s 1890s horror yarn as the Carry On team or Benny Hill might have played it in the 1960s or 70s. It’s groaning with corny English humour, innuendo and sight gags. Queue jokes about melons, plums and badgers and lines like: “The maid was a bit lumpy but the bed was nice and warm.”
The opening night audience couldn’t help but laugh.
Clearly Bull’s father Dennis – who plays a couple of characters in the show – allowed him to spend too much time watching Benny Hill re-runs growing up in Essex, England, their home before they moved here.
While Bull, whose day job is selling insurance, has a penchant for toilet humour, he’s got more strings to his bow. The Queen song, Another One Bites the Dust, takes on a whole new meaning with this crew. There are digs at Celine Dion, the Welsh and, closer to home, tourists and real estate agents.
He makes clever use of multi-media, which helps with the many set-changes as the action switches from Transylvanian castle to London apartment, from tavern to parlour, from graveyard to garden centre. A running gag about noise helps us through the set changes; among the sight gags is one with smoking pipes of growing proportions.
It’s a warm-hearted romp through cold-blooded subject matter: broadly following the Stoker story as young English solicitor Jonathan Harker is sent to Castle Dracula in Transylvania on business, where the locals are acting strangely. He is detained in the castle by Count Dracula, who leaves him to the tender mercies of flatmate Vladi Mary, while he heads to London to, well, dine out.
The performances are uniformly excellent: Kim Whitaker is a polished Count Dracula while Adam Sears does able service in the pivotal role as Harker. Donna Rogers eats-up the stage as Vladi Mary in a debut that bodes well. But the standouts for me were Linda Savage as Mina Harker and Eledir Seren as Dr Seward.
After the intermission, Bull dials back the corn quotient to pay homage to the story and, for the most part, the action flows nicely.
A technical failure sadly let the cast down for the climactic song-and-dance, but it wouldn’t have been opening night without a glitch or two.
In attempting to lay to rest last year’s troubles, Artworks has spoken of the need for the community to demonstrate its support. The premier wasn’t quite a full house: word-of-mouth will hopefully ensure remaining performances are well-attended.
Bull and his cast and crew certainly deserve endorsement – and the audience will get something to sink their teeth into.
Dracula continues nightly at Artworks Theatre until 25 March.
• Geoff Cumming