Life, etc, South Africa

Theatre Review: ‘Irma Vep’ – a Penny Dreadful’s worth of laughs

By Lesley Stones 10 July 2017

Over-the-top theatre can be hilarious, when you cast all expectations of normalcy aside and revel in the ridiculous. By LESLEY STONES.

That’s the aim with The Mystery of Irma Vep, a Victorian-style melodrama where mellow is abandoned and drama is turned up to the full. It’s a comedy, a farce, a Penny Dreadful horror story of vampires, werewolves, mummies, jealousy, murder and bad accents. And let’s pause there, because the accents that range from Scottish to Cockney by way of Egypt muffle many of the words to the point where you’re trying to hear the script rather than actually laughing at it.

The play is a two-man show with Jonathan Roxmouth and Weslee Swain Lauder playing a panoply of characters. The two of them are having a great time, indulging in silliness as they fool around with slapstick, daft expressions and ludicrously large costumes.

The script is a mishmash of a tale involving an aristocrat and his dead wife, his new wife, a dubious gardener and Jane, a very sinister maid played by Roxmouth, who must be relishing this break from the more serious demands of being South Africa’s most famous singing actor, and can now romp around for the sheer glee of it. He and Lauder meld well together and carry off their characters with crazy aplomb.

The crew under director Elizma Badenhorst deserve top marks for the slickness of it all, with speedy costume changes, perfectly timed sound effects and a wonderfully intricate set by Nadine and Loius Minnaar.

But here comes the kicker – while so many elements are right, the script itself is a letdown. The Mystery of Irma Vep was written by Charles Ludlum, an American playwright with a love of the ridiculous and exaggerated characters. Here his plot has layered so many things on top of each other that the result feels too complex and chaotic to be truly comic. And despite the complexity, it ends up feeling rather shallow. That weakness also makes the show too long.

It’s not helped, perhaps, by the fast and sometimes indecipherable accents to keep his characters true to their origins, which might make you miss some of the sharp one-liners.

While the plot isn’t enough to entertain in itself, the show is elevated by the excellent actions of Roxmouth and Lauder, particularly in scenes like entering an Egyptian tomb, where their physical antics erupt with comedy.

It’s over-the-top for sure, but never reaches the peak you keep anticipating. DM

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs at Montecasino Theatre until July 30 then moves to Cape Town’s Theatre On The Bay from August 3-19. Bookings through Computicket.


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