One of the most remarkable theatre productions I’ve seen in recent years was Feelgood Theatre’s Macbeth, staged in Heaton Park 10 years ago, and which coincided with a week of torrential rain; performing in a muddy pool in damp costumes sorely tested the actor’s levels of endurance, adding an edge of hysteria to Shakespeare’s tale of witchcraft and madness. During the closing scene, the rain stopped and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. It was one of those experiences you wish you could store in a bottle, put on a shelf and relive again at a future date.
Secretly, I was hoping for similar levels of inclemency for the opening night of Dracula – The Blood Count of Heaton (rather disappointedly, it takes place during a muggy British heatwave). First staged in the late noughties – and back by popular demand – Dracula marks the 25th anniversary of Caroline Clegg’s much-loved Manchester company. For those unfamiliar with Feelgood’s spirit of risk and adventure, it serves as an ideal introduction.
In the week that Boris Johnson became PM, a show about a blood sucking monster seems strangely appropriate, though thankfully the cast avoid cheap topical gags and references. Actor Peter Clifford returns as the Count, and also serves as writer, condensing Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel, into a brisk two and a bit hours. Selflessly, he gives himself fewer scenes than most other characters; Dracula is more elemental presence than fully rounded character, and at times the Count seems like a guest star in his own show.
But The Blood Count has a surprise secret weapon in the shape of Frederica Davies – in her professional debut – bringing a bright-eyed effervescence to the part of flighty, tragic Lucy Harker. She has excellent comic timing (check out the wacky banter in Scene 2), and is surely a name to look out for in future. Rebecca Phythian, as mad Gypsy girl Christina, makes a similarly memorable impression. Sophie Coward is suitably stout hearted as all-round good egg Mina. Feelgood regular Karl Greenwood gives a strong, committed performance as crusading vampire killer Van Helsing.
Having staged numerous productions at Heaton Park, director Clegg knows this epic green space like the back of her hand, and uses half a dozen inspired locations (the faded grandeur of Heaton Hall – the interior generally closed to the public – is cleverly incorporated). Audience members can expect to walk half a mile, as they move between the various scenes.
The momentum increases in Act 2, as Van Helsing, Dr Seward (Elianne Byrne), Jonathan Harker (Harry Mace), Inspector Morris (Joseph Jordan) and Gypsy Leader Apostolo (Dan Willis – another company regular) set off to hunt down and kill the Count.
The most effective moments occur in and around the woodland area. A chorus of pale faced victims lurk in the background, singing an unnerving lament for the dead, whilst the vampire hunters wander through the forest, led by lantern light. Clifford is also a stage illusionist, and adds several special effects, including black magic flashes, and rising coffin smoke. The Count cheats destiny one more time, which sets the stage for a suitably dramatic finale (a wedding and a bloodbath on the same day; what are the chances?) around the impressive floodlit terrace of Heaton Hall.
As much as I love Manchester International Festival, it does have a tendency – like an artistic version of Godzilla – to overshadow most everything else; some people may feel they’ve had enough culture for a while, and want to get back to normality. It would be a shame if this show got lost in the post MIF shuffle: In its own modest, quietly thrilling way, The Blood Count of Heaton makes for a mesmerising and memorable night out.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Dracula – The Blood Count of Heaton is at Heaton Park from 24 July to 11 August 2018. Visit website for details.