The Mystery of Irma Vep, now playing at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, is a stylish and hilarious two hour romp through a spoof on a variety of entertainment genres, not least of which was the Victorian “penny dreadful” sensational serial stories which fed the newly literate masses of a bygone era.
Other points of reference include Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. “Irma Vep” is an anagram for the word “Vampire” as well as the name of a character in the 1915 French movie serial Les Vampires.
Written by Charles Ludlum in 1984 as a high camp drama for his own Off Broadway theatre company, the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, this work has, oddly, survived as a comedy theatre classic in its own right.
Set in a mansion called Mandacrest somewhere on the moors, there are only two actors playing the role of eight characters in a hugely convoluted and confusing plot involving vampires, werewolves, and Egyptian mummies that come to life. The two actors are Jonathan Roxmouth and Weslee Swain Lauder. The costume changes are almost as fast as lightning and each of them alters, often radically, their gaits, voices and facial expressions to bring the different characters to life. Amazingly they never get them confused.
Directed by Elizma Badenhorst, the most surprising thing about The Mystery of Irma Vep is the level to which she gets the audience to care about these odd characters and weird twists in the tale. I was expecting it to be very little more than an evening of comedy, but I was soon caught up in the gripping melodramatic whodunit.
From the lofty phrases of Shakespeare (“murdered sleep”) through the mispronunciation of the word “sarcophagus” – several times – to the lowbrow gag of having Nicodemus hopping on one leg when his wooden one lands up somewhere on stage, there is something for everyone to find funny. I laughed till my belly ached. My favourite line is the remark that Nicodemus cannot join Lady Enid in the drawing room “for obvious reasons” (ie. they are both played by Weslee Swain Lauder).
All round this is wonderful production. Ludlam’s play itself is witty and combines parody, melodrama and satire most convincingly. It is beautifully directed by Elizma Badenhorst, with the high camp acting by Jonathan Roxmouth and Weslee Swain Lauder always being top notch, and scenic design by Nadine and Louis Minnaar, lovely lighting by Oliver Hauser, wardrobe design by Pierre du Plessis and a wonderful sound design composed by Wessel Odendaal.
All round this a most entertaining and amusing piece of theatre, and it is sure to please just about everyone. I recommend it highly.
The Mystery of Irma Vep plays at the Pieter Toerien Montecasino Theatre till 30 July 2017. Booking at Computicket or the theatre.