Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep is creative fusion theatre. First staged off-off-Broadway in 1984 by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, it cannot be described as inspired by but one realm of the arts: it draws on the theatrical, cinematic and literary. It is usually billed as either a melodramatic satire or farce, with a gothic take on the theatre of the absurd. However, the current VR Theatrical staging of Ludlam's Victorian play – much like the overlapping influences – has a rather sui generis feel to it.
Be prepared for the comically far-fetched, as the text is infused with the supernatural. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts and mummies unequivocally make their presence known. Channeling the twilight-zone, where comedy and horror meets, it is described as a penny dreadful type story that sees at the centre of it all Mandacrest Manor, home to the Egyptologist, Lord Edgar, his new wife, Lady Enid, their sombre (sometimes bitter adjacent) housemaid, Jane, and awkward groundskeeper, Nicodemus.
Jonathan Roxmouth brings a predominantly deathly-deadpan presence to the stage and provides a counter to the antics and entertainingly telling facial expressions of Weslee Swain Lauder. Lauder shows that he is well skilled in the art of setting up a laugh, something performers can easily take for granted when they are too focussed on just the narrative. He knows how to act between the lines, which gives him a comedic edge.
The interesting directing choices of Elizma Badenhorst appears to have slowed down the pace of the play, making it less fast paced than a traditional farce by rather opting to prolong overly dramatic pauses for added exaggeration effect. For that reason the comedic timing of Lauder is key, as it allows for laughter build-up after such lingering dramatic interludes, which otherwise could undermine the giggle moments too much. The delicate balance in the dynamics between Roxmouth’s seriousness and Lauder’s silliness is thus key.
As The Mystery of Irma Vep sees two actors play eight characters, it truly does take a creative village to meet the Ludlam level of ridiculousness. With numerous sound cues and special effects required, Progress Mphande deserves applause for not missing a technical beat. Then mention too must be made of the talented dresser-duo, Megan Rigby and Naret Loots, as the quick changes are fantastic and definitely add to the humour and enjoyment standard of this production. Steller behind the scenes work translates to stage flawlessly.
All in all the show is a spooftacular drag that will elicit cross-dressing laughs at various stages of the story. At certain points it even feels as if they are taking the mickey out of amateur productions in the manner they overplay certain aspects, for example, when the characters narrate slapstick comedy associated actions rather than fully acting these out.
One small bugbear is that it takes the ear a few minutes to tune into the characters' accents so as to focus on the full theatrical experience rather than just trying to follow the dialogue. As soon as you sync with their specific modulation, the full scope of Ludlam's zany world is open to you.
In short, even though Ludlam layered his characters and the story, his fondness for the ludicrous trumps all. Thus don't come to this play expecting any degree of depth. Absurdity is the star. The Mystery of Irma Vep taps into the cliché-driven, funny side of horror-fantasy. So, if you were not a fan of the real Twilight Saga but liked the parody movie Vampires Suck, this is the play for you.
It is a frivolously fun night at the theatre that will give cause to good bouts of giggles. Book your tickets at Computicket to see it at Theatre on the Bay before run ends 19 August 2017.