Nick Ahad rounds up theatre in the North
Imitating the Dog is a little company in the North that has been making quietly revolutionary work for over twenty years. With its latest production, a retelling of the Dracula myth which I saw at Leeds Playhouse before it embarked on a national tour, it feels like the company has reached a sort of apotheosis.
Adela Rajnovic and Riana Duce in Dracula: The Untold Story. Photo credit: Ed Waring.
Founded in 1998 by Andrew Quick and Simon Wainwright, these days the pair share the titles of co-artistic director along with Pete Brooks, who joined Imitating the Dog to make the duo a trio in 2004. A company with three artistic directors might sound like a recipe for disharmony – isn’t rule number one of the management consultants’ handbook that every organisation needs a leader? In the case of Imitating the Dog, sharing the load between three has allowed it to become one of the most creatively innovative companies working from the north of England.
The company’s mission is, according to the website, that “we are most interested in telling stories and we create beautiful, memorable images for audiences and the work fuses live performance with digital technology in order to serve the story in the best possible way”.
Dracula provides an opportunity to examine that mission.
Before the Great Pause, as theatres across the land closed their doors in the face of the pandemic, Imitating the Dog staged an extraordinarily ambitious piece of work when they created a theatrical version of George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s tricky to describe the production but see if you can follow this: on stage were two screens, one screen showed the original film of Night of the Living Dead. Actors then re-created on the stage in front of the screen the original film frame by frame as it happened and their performances were filmed live and broadcast onto the second screen above the stage, next to the screen showing the original movie.
It was a slightly confusing experience (although I imagine not as confusing as it reads), but theatrically interesting. It created a stir in theatre circles. The production was due to take in much of the country on a national tour, but that was scuppered by the Covid pandemic, which closed theatres when Night of the Living Dead was only a couple of weeks into its run. I’d been lucky enough to catch it early at the Leeds Playhouse. The company has used the time during lockdown to reflect on what made Night of the Living Dead work – and what didn’t. All of which has fed into Dracula: The Untold Story, which has to be one of the strongest pieces Imitating the Dog has produced since its birth at the National Student Drama Festival in 1998.
Adela Rajnovic, Matt Prendergast and Riana Duce in Dracula: The Untold Story.
Photo credit: Ed Waring.
Having tackled zombies pre-pandemic, the company emerged from lockdown ready to take on Dracula. The smart money would be on Frankenstein next to complete a diabolical trilogy. For a show about the undead, Dracula was a production bursting with life, theatre as intensely popular culture with influences from movies like Sin City, graphic novels like Watchmen and Constantine, and a sensibility that was heavily redolent of the Benedict Cumberbatch era of Sherlock Holmes.
The company has always pushed at the boundaries of technology and theatre, and here they achieved a kind of perfect equilibrium between the live performance and digital, the two working symbiotically. In The Night of the Living Dead the balance was out of whack, the technology feeling like it sometimes overwhelmed the performance. Here in Dracula; The Untold Story the blend of live performance was enhanced by the digital element. It is also, mercifully, less difficult to describe: three actors play out the story in front of a projection screen, playing simultaneously to the audience and to cameras on stage. Their images are then relayed to the screen and digitally treated to make it look like we are watching a graphic novel come to life. The result may sound confusing but is never the less than engaging, often thrillingly so.
This original story takes Bram Stoker’s creation and places Mina Harker at its centre. In the original she is the main female character but plays second fiddle to the men. Here she takes centre stage when she turns up in a police station on New Year’s Eve, 1965, to confess to a sceptical police officer and a detective about a 70-yearlong killing spree. If she is the real Mina Harker, she would be an old woman, but the girl making the confession hasn’t hit her thirties yet. She claims she has used her supernatural strength and prophetic dreams to hunt down would-be murderers in this alternate universe, taking out the likes of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler before they commit their atrocities.
As Harker, Riana Duce gives the best performance of her still young career. There could be a temptation to play Harker ironically – it is all very gothic – but she resists, playing it straight which in turn allows us to buy wholly into the conceit. Adela Rajnovic and Matt Prendergast have worked in this way before, and you can see it in the way they play with the mixed media. Inventive, amusing, genuinely thrilling at times, this is a blend of digital and live performance that makes sense for our era.
There has been some controversy in UK theatre circles recently after a theatre critic in a national newspaper wrote a rather scathing review of a new play from playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, saying “I hope the demands of motherhood don’t preclude her from writing something more substantial next time”. The play in question was Mum and was one of two premieres Lloyd Malcolm saw of her work in autumn 2021 – she has found herself much in demand since her hit show Emilia opened at the RSC before transferring to the West End. Before Mum at Theatre Royal Plymouth, there was Typical Girls at Sheffield’s Crucible.
The play was commissioned by Clean Break, a theatre company that makes work with and about women with lived experience of the criminal system, many as prisoners. One of my colleagues interviewed them recently. Lloyd Malcolm worked with the company initially through running workshops in a prison in Surrey specifically with women with personality disorders who are close to release. The milieu provided the inspiration for Typical Girls, the story of a group of women in a PIPES (psychologically informed planned environment) unit who find expression in punk music.
Helen Cripps and Alison Fitzjohn in Typical Girls. Photo credit: Helen Murray
The actors were clearly straining at the leash to bring this show to the stage, an energy which contributed to the sense of a piece that is unruly but full of joy. While this works for the punk element of a show that is “part-gig, part-play”, it means the story, painted in broad brushstrokes, loses subtlety along the way.
Based on her time working in HMP Send in Woking, the Emilia writer penned a story of a group of incarcerated women who come together for weekly music therapy sessions under the tutelage of Marie. Lucy Ellinson as earnest Marie is given hints of an exterior life, and while well cast as a woman who wants to make a difference, she lacks the punk swagger when it comes to the gig element.
More convincing are the women around her who find a means of expression via punk, inspired largely by the band to which Marie introduces them, The Slits, and whose song gives the show its title and an ongoing refrain.
Put a group of troubled women in a room together, turn up the pressure in the form of a concert for which they have to rehearse, and allow the inevitable to happen. It’s a piece reminiscent of early Richard Bean, but while funny, it lacks his malevolent humour – which is a shame because the opportunity is there with this group of characters.
The play’s stand-out performance came from Alison Fitzjohn as Mouth, who layered what could easily be a purely comic character, and the mysterious Jane is injected with odd humour by Helen Cripps – plus she can play the hell out of the drums. For its flaws – stories left unresolved and speeches that are sometimes inexact – Typical Girls had a joy and energy that was undeniable.
The theatre lockdown of 2020 robbed audiences and creatives alike, leaving productions strewn across an empty stage with nobody to bear witness. This was saddening, maddening, frustrating in equal measure, but for some productions the effect was a little more profound than simply causing the inconvenience of dealing with an automated box office message while trying to get a refund for tickets bought. For the cast and creative crew of Leeds Playhouse’s Oliver Twist, the shutdown was utterly devastating.
The play was the spring 2020 offering from Ramps on the Moon, a conglomerate of six theatres along with leading deaf and disabled British company Graeae that aims to correct an imbalance on UK stages by normalizing the presence of deaf and disabled people on them.
If that sounds in any way worthy or somehow “box-ticking” let me disabuse you immediately. While Ramps on Moon is about allowing deaf and disabled creatives a space on British stages, it is also entirely about creating powerful work.
When lockdown forced Oliver Twist, directed by Amy Leach, to disband, it was devastating because this initiative is creating more than theatre: it is creating change. The deaf and disabled artists know that these productions matter.
After the devastation, as theatre slowly began to return, director Leach was clear that Oliver Twist could not be consigned to the archives, and so the original company was brought back together to restage the production for a filmed version. The film was made available for a month and, unlike, say, NT Live, it wasn’t a production that played to the cameras. Leach wanted the film to capture the essence of the theatre piece the company had created. Intensely powerful, with performances through which you could feel the desperation and importance of the story, it was a deeply affecting piece of theatre-as-film. By weaving accessibility throughout the piece, with an Oliver and Bill Sykes who were both deaf and therefore communicated through sign language, Leach demonstrated that British Sign Language, on-stage captions and other accessibility requirements need not be a hindrance to creativity but can absolutely enhance it at every turn. A stunning piece of theatre and an important achievement for theatre more widely.
Brooklyn Melvin as Oliver at the Leeds Playhouse. Photo credit: Anthony Robling.