STAGE: The Mystery of Irma Vep – Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
THE beauty of this camp and giddy spoof comedy by Charles Ludlum, a mickey-take of B-grade Gothic thrillers and the whole horror genre, is not so much in the convoluted and increasingly silly story it tells, but in the way it is told.
The play requires two hard-working and versatile actors to fill four roles, with lighting-fast and constant changes in character, accents, costumes and wigs. It comes as no surprise, then, that the show’s dressers come forward with the principal performers for the final bows, as they, like the actors, work their tooshes off ensuring everything goes to plan.
So many things could go wrong with this production and, in fact, during the performance I saw on Saturday, star Weslee Swain Lauder almost sent a sarcophagus tumbling… which, of course, simply added to the fun.
In brief, The Mystery of Irma Vep is a screwball parody of melodrama, telling of poker-faced maid Jane and limping groundsman Nicodemus becoming involved in the goings-on at the dark Mandacrest manor.
Against a recurring backdrop of spooky instrumental music (take a bow composer and sound designer Wessel Odendaal), and on a set depicting a living room below a section of the exterior of the mansion (the work of Nadine and Louis Minaar), Jane and Nicodemus, whom Jane loathes, work for egyptologist Lord Edgar.
Edgar is a bow-legged man still haunted by the memory of his late first wife, Irma Vep, whose portrait hangs in the living room. However, much to Jane’s chagrin, Edgar has now taken a new wife – the chocolate-loving, former actress Lady Enid, a big blonde in billowing gowns.
As a story of mystery, intrigue and jealousy unfolds so the audience is introduced to an Egyptian princess, a mummy, an intruder, werewolves and a vampire… all of which justifies the coffin on display in the Pieter Toerien Theatre auditorium. It is placed in front of cutouts of the main characters, and patrons can stick their heads through cutouts in these characters’ faces for a photo opportunity.
Directed with a mischievous wink and a penchant for quirky slapstick by Elizma Badenhort, the production has Weslee delighting, and constantly scene-stealing, as the groundsman, Lady Enid, a guide in Egypt and a mummy with tasselled nipple caps.
He is matched perfectly by the ever-dependable Jonathan Roxmouth in the other roles. The best is the bitter Jane who, in a completely gratuitious and slightly overlong, but nonethleless very amusing, standout sequence, shares a song with Enid while they play the flute and lute. A hoot!
There are other ridiculous moments that made me laugh out loud, among them Weslee’s open-mouthed tongue-wiggle during moments of fear; and his absurdly over-the-top reaction to strong drinks. A scene in which both actors mime entering a tomb and dangle from invisible ropes is also great.
The fun wigs and costumes by Pierre du Plessis, invariably very large and over the top, add to the fun, as do a range of facial expressions which speak volumes even when there is no dialogue.
Both actors clearly have a ball in a show which I first saw in Durban in 2007, in a fine KickstArt production which took four Durban Theatre Awards – for best production, director (Greg King), actor (an award shared by Steven Stead and Michael Gritten) and set design (King again). It was a scream in more ways than one – and, being more intimate, was more rewarding, for me anyway.
That Durban production was so well received it was revived for a second season three years later.
The current VR Theatrical production runs at the Pieter Toerien’s main theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg until July 30, then will be presented at Cape Town’s Theatre On The Bay from August 2 to 19. Booking is at Computicket outlets.