Theatrecraft Review: The Mystery of Irma Vep


The Myster of Irma Vep - A Penny Dreadful
by Charles Ludlam
Beaumaris Theatre
Directed by Div Collins
Reviewed by Deborah Fabbro - June 7, 2018

On a cold winter night in Melbourne, Beaumaris Theatre transported its audience to the English country estate of Lord Edgar Hillcrest and an evening of astonishing and startling antics in the style of the 19th Century penny dreadful novels - the subtitle of this play.

I understand that these novels were somewhat sensational and commonly convoluted in their plots, a theme used by the playwright in the play. Lord Edgar Hillcrest is a widower. His late wife, Irma Vep, is remembered with a portrait over the fireplace. He has recently remarried Lady Enid who is still trying to fit into her new role, something made more difficult by the less than welcoming staff, the devoted housekeeper and strange groundskeeper whose monthly dissappearances are concerning to Lord Edgar. fearing that the house is haunted, he goes on an expedition to Egypt to try to solve the mystery of Irma Vep. If this all seems a little too complex, it probably was but the clever writing with its tropes and one-liners delivered so brilliantly by the cast added up to an exhilarating night of theatre.

The programme told me that there was Actor One (Johnathan Best) and Actor Two (Patt Ryan) playing the various eight characters that appear through this romp. I am incredulous (surely they are each a set of twins!)  as their exit from the stag as one character and re-entrance as a completely different one (in full costume, wig etc) in an instant, was completely amazing. This is testament to the precision, co-ordination and extraordinary ability of the superb assistance backstage from stage manager Kristina Doucouliagos and her crew of Stuart Anderson, Chris Hunter and Justin Kyt - exceptional work, guys! I'm pleased we saw you and could acknowledge your qork during the curtain call.

Director Div Collins and his creative team have fine-tuned everything to present a polished production. Chris Churchward's set created a beautiful looking Victorian room in a Manor House with French doors out to the garden. The dressing and props were in the capable hands of stage manager Kristina and Neil Barnett. Mr Barnett's expereince and talents in this area were evident in the creation of unusual props and special effects. In Act Two, part of the stage was tansformed into an Egyptian tomb and the clever blocking gave us the sense that Lord Edgar and his guide were descending into the bowels of a pyramid. The only slight hitch was the removal of this and restoration of the manor house but this is a minor quibble. Cameron Trijbetz's lighting was well designed to create the atmosphere required for this gothic story and this was enhanced by Div Collin's soundscape and the original music composed by The Fat Man and Team Fat. Costume designer Deb Carpenter and her assistants, Jenni Osburn and Cherllyn de Vries, did a wonderful job creating the period and character-appropriate costumes and wigs and making them conducive to the super-quick changes, as Ms Carpenter said in her notes "thank goodness for Velcro"!

None of this would have worked as wellas it did if not for the adroit, energetic and veratile performances of Jonathan Best and Patt Ryan. The director's precision staging and comic planning was superbly wrought by their amazing talents. Each of them are riveting to watch as they believably switch characters in a split second and keep up the traits of each character with each change. One does forget that there are only the two actors portraying the diverse array.

This was a well thought-out and entertainingly presented production that highlighted the talent and commitment of all involved.