Spooks and shocks provide an evening of stagefright

Stagefright, by Michael Punter, world premiere directed by Colin Blumenau, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, until Saturday, February 25

Things really do go bump - as well as crackle, clap, creak, shriek and bang - in the night during this delicious slice of gothic horror.

The Theatre Royal is the perfect setting for Stagefright: its intimate, historic feel adding to the atmosphere of foreboding.

We live in a world of sophisticated audiences, dulled by computer-generated special effects..

So creating real shocks in real time, on stage, using whatever physical means can be devised must be even more of a challenge than it was for the Victorians of the era in which this play is set.

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It is testament to illusionist Ben Hart, writer Michael Punter and director Colin Blumenau that Stagefright contains moments when, judging from the shockwaves, most of the Pit left its seats by a good six inches.

Added to these are downright creepy happenings - the simplest often being the most eerie - and illusions which impress even a modern audience.

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To describe any would be to spoil them. Suffice to say that nine out of ten are tremendous and a slightly clunky ghost is still pretty good.

What holds the whole together are great performances by Jonathan Keeble, as actor and impresario Henry Irving, and Barry Ward as Bram Stoker.

Keeble was a spellbinding Shylock at the Theatre Royal and here turns in another charismatic performance. He is a big actor and conveys Irving’s big ego and big ambitions, while retaining the feeling that the success, fame and bluster are a veneer across the top of a life not far from its humble roots.

Stoker created one of western culture’s great fictional characters, in Dracula. Such is the centrality of the Count to modern culture - too many films and spin-offs to count, plus more recently the drippy Twilight saga - that it is fun to speculate from where Stoker took his ideas.

Punter enjoys speculating over the source of, for example, the name of Stoker’s heroine Mina Harker and the origins of Renfield’s nasty fly-eating habit.

Ward, quick and birdlike, conveys the frustrated energy of a man trying to burst out from under the weight of his more famous companion’s plots.

With more than a week to run, this production is certainly worth catching. Just leave your car parked under a streetlight.

Mark Crossley

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