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Dracula's Women Underground

2 starsReviewed by Richard Stamp
Poole's Cavern
4-19 Jul 5:30pm to 6:30pm, 7pm to 8pm, 8:30pm to 9:30pm

For their now-traditional site-specific play in the depths of Poole’s Cavern, Butterfly Theatre present an original script based on a rewrite of Dracula.  Vampire-hunter Van Helsing, and the love-lorn Dr Seward, pursue their enemy through the shadowy underworld in which he’s built his lair.  But Dracula’s Women – the three undead sisters from Brad Stoker’s original book – lie in wait to trap the unwary.  And unknown to Seward, the love of his life is already lost forever… while the woman who killed her, Mina, is out for her own style of revenge.

Mina is, in fact, by far the most capable and practical member of Van Helsing’s party, lending playwright Ed Hartland’s script an interesting feminist spin.  But considering the emphasis placed on Dracula’s three “brides”, it’s hard to overlook the deep-seated misogyny carried over from Stoker’s plot, with its theme of predatory women using sexual charms to corrupt pure-hearted men.  Hartland does nothing to subvert or challenge these unpleasant nineteenth-century attitudes – relying instead on an unsubtle outburst from Mina to fly the flag for modernity.  Given that Hartland has chosen to tackle gender issues (and more power to him for doing so), there was a missed opportunity here to say something more surprising and substantial.

But Hartland’s storyline is commendably clear and, while a few lines were lost to the difficult acoustic, the cast mostly do a good job of telling it.  Each of the characters is well-developed, with the half-crazed Renfield – often reduced to stereotype by lesser actors – an especially well-judged creation.  And if Dracula’s Women themselves are unreformed in concept, they’re certainly played with relish, cattily squabbling one moment and then swooning for Seward’s benefit the next.

The underground setting does lend a sense of claustrophobic urgency to proceedings – particularly towards the later scenes, as the party begin to suspect they’ve blundered into a trap.  But Butterfly’s previous shows have made more imaginative use of the cave’s geography, and I was a little disappointed by how few scenes were performed among the pits and pinnacles to the sides of the path.  It also wasn’t entirely clear what we, the audience, were doing there; sometimes the actors recognised our presence, but sometimes we seemed to be invisible observers, a minor confusion which interrupted the immersive feel the promenade sections often achieved.

The story ends, bravely, on a cliffhanger, and there’s a clever recognition that imagined horrors are often more potent than the ones we confront.  Ultimately though, it feels incomplete; we see neither the start nor the end of Stoker’s story, and the titular Dracula’s Women aren’t given a strong enough focus to build a satisfying extract around.  So there are some interesting ideas here and, as always, Poole’s Cavern offers a haunting backdrop.  But sadly, it’s just not the strongest of Butterfly’s plays.

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About the Buxton Fringe

The Buxton Fringe 2014 runs from 9 to 27 July in the town of Buxton, Derbyshire. 

It's easy to find your way around this friendly Festival, with most venues within a stone's throw of the town centre.  For more information on the Peak District's own Fringe, check out the official website.

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