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  • Writer's pictureFrank Schierloh

REVIEW: The Mystery of Irma Vep (Bristol Riverside Theatre, Bristol PA)

This Madcap Penny Dreadful Will Get You Into The Halloween Spirit.


The Victorian Era was filled with an abundance of interest in the occult, and a fascination with ghouls and monsters. This led to the creation of the Penny Dreadful (not the show starring Eva Green), serialized short stories about monsters and other terrifying creatures. The 1984 play, The Mystery of Irma Vep, is a send up of these penny dreadful stories, that weaves together an absurdly silly story to poke fun at the genre. It's currently on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre in a lavish production that is whimsically performed but occasionally struggles with its pace.

A scene from Bristol Riverside Theatre's 2023 production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Charles Osborne and Chris French in Bristol Riverside Theatre's 2023 Production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Spooky Scary Skeletons!

The story of Irma Vep introduces us to the family and staff of The Mandacrest Estate: Lord Edgar and his second wife, Lady Enid, the maid Jane and the handyman Nicodemus. The spectre of Lord Edgar's first wife (the titular character) is ever present, as her portrait hangs over the fireplace. The hilarity ensues as these characters discover mummies, hunt werewolves, escape vampires, and are haunted by the ghosts of their past. One of the key successes of the show is that all of these characters and creatures are played by two performers.

Chris French and Charles Osborne take on the task of playing multiple characters each, and every character is decisively unique. There is a fine line when it comes to people performing gender in theatre, with the old trope of "man in dress- ha ha joke" being one that is still prevalent and pervasive among theatres...unfortunately. It's comforting to see that both of these performers approached playing the feminine roles from a more nuanced position, crafting their characters so the humor of them comes from the wild things they do as opposed to them being a "man in a dress". This skill applies to all of the characters they play, and the creative ways the show tackles there only being two actors adds to the hysterics.

A scene from Bristol Riverside Theatre's 2023 Production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Charles Osborne and Chris French in Bristol Riverside Theatre's 2023 Production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.

The Monster Mash!

The set of this production is grand and lavish, evoking all the Gothic horror motifs of an old Victorian estate. Set designer Jason Simms did a wonderful job in creating a set that works well for the show and is inventive in the way it transforms. The true star of the show, however, is the incredible sound design by designer Ryk Lewis. It sets the scene before the show even starts with the sound of rain and a thunderstorm. From there it continues to impress, with howls, distorted voices, and mummy dance music being wonderfully woven into the narrative.

Director Victoria Rae Sook does a good job of keeping all of the moving pieces spinning. Her staging is engaging and exciting, creating some very fun stage pictures. However, there was an occasional lack of speed and urgency that could have heightened the comedy even more, as well as some dreadfully slow scene changes that interrupt the energy of the show. Thankfully, they're small issues in an otherwise entertaining evening.

A scene from Bristol Riverside Theatre's 2023 Production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Chris French and Charles Osborne in Bristol Riverside Theatre's 2023 Production of The Mystery of Irma Vep.

This is Halloween!

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a show that delights as much as it confounds. The story is whimsical and absurd at times, while also presenting very funny observations about Victorian England's understanding of Ancient Egypt (if you don't know about the wild exploitation and obsession with Ancient Egypt in Victorian England, I'd suggest reading about it, it's disturbing). The show has moments of meta commentary that don't always make sense, but an overwhelming sense of camp that somehow ties it all together. In the hands of this talented cast, smart director, and visionary designers it's a delightful Halloween treat that is chock full of just as many tricks.

A cartoon image with links to tickets

The Mystery of Irma Vep

is onstage at Bristol Riverside Theatre

(120 Radcliffe Street)

from now until October 22, 2023.




For more information on the show, go to brtstage.org.



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