The Mystery Of Irma Vep Is A Campy Homage To Horror

Jonathan Kemp and William Kempsell in Irma Vep (Photo by Tony Nandi)

Jonathan Kemp and William Kempsell in Irma Vep (Photo by Tony Nandi)

There are strange goings-on at Mandacrest – the servants are harbouring sinister secrets, Lord Edgar is out hunting wolves again and his new actress wife is being driven mad by the painting of Irma Vep.

Beyond mere melodrama, this high-camp show is an affectionate spoof of classic chillers and horror B-pictures. Alongside vampires and werewolves, half a dozen stock characters are brought to life with consummate skill and lightning speed by a cast of two: sparky William Kempsell and velvet-voiced Jonathan Kemp. Both actors are excellent, if you like this sort of thing, pushing each other further and further over the top. We get cross-dressing, terrible puns and 35 costume changes as the madcap plot flits from a haunted manor on the moors to a tomb in Egypt and then, for some reason, back again.

Written by American Charles Ludlam the play was first performed in 1984, though it feels much older than that. It’s reminiscent of a soldiers’ revue in some distant colonial outpost and we even get a Vaudeville-style sand-dance at one point.

It’s mostly jolly good fun though there are a few stretches played inexplicably straight. Perhaps a few extra jokes would cover up the dead spots in the original script. That said, Kate Bannister’s direction is clever and slickly choreographed and the handsome set by Karl Swinyard helps belie the size of the tiny Jack Studio. Fruity fun then, good for a Christmas outing.

The Mystery of Irma Vep — A Penny Dreadful is on at the Jack Studio Theatre until 4 January 2014.

Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

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