Melodrama goes at a madcap pace

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Actors Stephen Butterworth and Will Spicer will have to be on their toes in comedy murder mystery melodrama The Mystery of Irma Vep, as they tackle eight characters and 35 costume changes during the show. The Fortune Theatre’s pre-Christmas production will be a madcap, satirical dash through an array of theatrical, literary and film genres, including Victorian melodrama, farce, the ‘‘penny dreadful’’, Wuthering Heights, and the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca. Along with playing multiple characters, both male and female, Butterworth and Spicer will also wrestle with a large number of sound cues, props, special effects and quick changes. Vampires, ghosts, mummies and werewolves will all make appearances, as the show gathers momentum to reach a farcical conclusion. Written by American playwright Charles Ludlam, and first performed in the 1980s, The Mystery of Irma Vep combines an ‘‘ironic deconstruction’’ of the horror genre with a high-camp celebration of it. Programmed and directed by Fortune Theatre artistic director Jonathon Hendry, this production of the play remains true to its original aims. Butterworth, whose main role is that of Lady Enid, and Spicer, whose main role is Egyptologist Lord Edgar, plan to highlight the darker aspects of the play for as long as possible, as the comedy gradually ‘‘leaks in’’. ‘‘We get to play some fantastic characters, from ladies to werewolves, and we will be doing our best to provide the audience with some scary moments — until things start to get totally ridiculous,’’ Butterworth said. ‘‘We want the audience to find it scary, especially at the beginning, and also very funny too.’’ The performers will also occasionally break the ‘‘fourth wall’’ — the invisible barrier between actors and audience — sharing the jokes and encouraging reaction. ‘‘Being able to directly address the audience is great fun, and really helps keep things moving along,’’ Spicer said. The rapid costume changes and increasing pace of the action are hallmarks of The Mystery of Irma Vep, and the actors paid tribute to Fortune Theatre costume designer Maryanne Wright-Smith and stage managers George Wallace and Erica Browne for their contributions. ‘‘We are literally changing in seconds, so the costumes have to be really easy to take off and put on, plus they are wonderfully evocative of the play’s gothic horror atmosphere,’’ Butterworth said.  ‘‘The people behind the scenes are very important to us being able to manage the speed of it all. By the end, we are really dashing about.’’ The high-speed nature of The Mystery of Irma Vep means the performers will be concentrating hard as they walk the knife edge between success and ‘‘losing the plot’’. ‘‘And that’s all part of the fun for the audience — they can relax and enjoy it, while we do the running around.’’
The Mystery of Irma Vep opens on Saturday and continues until December 10.