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THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP (article first published : 2007-08-22)

In Charles Ludlam’s laugh-a-minute play, Irma Vep is an integral character who we never see, apart from in a painting which at one point produces an alarming and eerie reaction. Turn her name around and the result is something – or maybe someone – ominous. Lurking nearby, possibly? Perhaps even among the characters themselves?

To find the culprit could be like looking for a needle in a haystack – or in this case, the mill run, or perhaps in a tomb in Egypt or even in the elegant drawing room in which The Mystery of Irma Vep is set. The reason is, this amusing and convoluted plot involves many characters.

There’s the feisty, forthright Irish housekeeper Jane Twisden; a gnarled wooden-legged hunter who goes by the weird name of Nicodemus Underwood; the simpering seemingly-fragile former actress Lady Enid; her enigmatic noble husband Lord Edgar Hillcrest; the fast-talking smarmy Egyptian tour guide Alcazar, and a topless belly-dancing Mummy, not forgetting a masked Intruder.

Counting the embodiment of Irma Vep, that’s eight characters altogether in a two-act play. So when you discover that there are only two actors involved, you’ll figure out that the action is mildly manic. The hectic and hilarious scripting sees them in and out of costumes at a dizzying pace – at one stage, wearing two costumes at the same time but I’m not explaining how – go and see the show!

To handle this kind of action and to plausibly pull off the different characters, you need two actors of a high degree of skill and comedy talent and a director who can hold it all together firmly and sensibly. Greg King handles this with ease and Steven Stead and Michael Gritten act out the dizzying scenario with aplomb – a tour de force excellently executed.

I last saw The Mystery of Irma Vep in Durban in 1993 when two powerful acting talents, David Dennis and the late Frantz Dobrowsky, were in the cast. I’m happy to say that Steven and Michael’s performances are just as good – and just as frenetic!

The intimate Seabrooke’s Theatre at DHS is a perfect venue for this KickstArt production and Greg King has designed a drawing room set that is elegant and well-decorated. Heaven knows how, but he’s even pulled off a revolving bookcase, columns with gargoyles and an Egyptian sarcophagus! The play is supported by good lighting, costume, sound – we even have a dulcimer – and an incredibly hard-working backstage team without which the production would grind to a clothes-less, wig-less halt!

Written in 1984, inspired by the “penny dreadful” and borrowing heavily from film horror classics, The Mystery of Irma Vep is one of Charles Ludlam’s best plays and it has won many awards. It’s almost a send-up of a send-up, drawing on well-known dialogue by Shakespeare, Omar Khayyam, Oscar Wilde, Ibsen, Poe and the Brontès – and probably more! There is a plot somewhere in all this: Lord Edgar and Lady Irma’s son was licked by his mother’s pet wolf which then sank his fangs into the child’s neck. Is everybody in the household blameless and, if not, why do they get jittery at full moon?

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs at the Seabrooke’s Theatre at DHS until September 9 from Tuesday to Saturday at 19h30 (Sundays at 16h00). There is limited secure parking. Tickets R80 booked through Computicket or at the door on the day of the performance. Concessions at R60 are available (no credit card bookings on discounted seats). The show also appears at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival. If you like highly amusing, clever send-up theatre extremely well presented, don’t miss it! – Caroline Smart




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