Bringing magic and shocks to Stagefright

The ghostly backstage world of Victorian theatre is being recreated in a new play Stagefright. ANDREW CLARKE talks to Colin Blumenau and Ben Hart about the challenges of creating believable special effects on stage.

When you see a play on stage you would expect to trust the evidence of your own eyes. You are only feet away from the actors and you can see everything that is going on – or, at least, you think you can.

Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal next week stages the world premiere of Stagefright, a play designed to have audiences questioning what they are seeing.

This new play, by Michael Punter, takes us back into the atmospheric world of the Victorian theatre and their fascination with magic and the spirit world.

Directed by Colin Blumenau, it tells the story of actor/manager Sir Henry Irving and his business associate Bram Stoker. Stoker, who was later to become world famous as the author of the gothic horror novel Dracula, was the manager of London's Lyceum Theatre – then owned by Irving.

Stagefright looks at the reactions of these two theatrical titans as they are haunted by a vengeful ghost – just as Irving is hoping to stage a production of Faust.

The production will also feature some jaw dropping illusions integrated seamlessly into the action by magician and Magic Circle member Ben Hart.

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Both Ben and Colin are warning audiences that, perhaps, not everything should be accepted at face value.

Colin, Bury's artistic director, said: 'Stagefright has got all the elements of a psychological thriller plus a bit more. It's wonderfully atmospheric. We keep likening it to Woman in Black but I think it is a better play than Woman in Black.

'The way it is being produced means that it will have lots of those elements. The audience will switch from comedy to dread in a trice and the play is constructed to do that. So, theatrically I hope that people will find it satisfying on a lot of different levels.'

The way that the play has been written leaves us in no doubt that Stoker has an inkling of what is to come. 'It's a very knowing play. It's clear that Dracula is all ready rattling around in Stoker's head. There are references to Dracula, which, at the time the play is set, has yet to be written. It does reference the future rather than the past.

'It also makes clear that Irving was arguably Stoker's inspiration for Dracula. Interestingly, it has also come to light that Irving and Stoker could also have been Conan Doyle's inspiration for Holmes and Watson.'

Colin said that he and Ben have worked hard to weave the illusions into the heart of the play.

Ben explains: 'You have to make sure that you put them in the right place. It's rather like a joke – you have got to have a good feed line, then a good punch line and you have to plan the time for that release of tension afterwards.'

Colin said that Michael Punter contacted the theatre with the completed script – which came with a glowing recommendation from Dr Who and Sherlock writer Mark Gatis – who described it as: 'Genuinely spooky, delightfully erudite and ultimately moving.'

After reading the play Colin agreed with that summary and set about realising it for the stage. 'It's a lovely, clever piece of writing that will turn into an incredibly theatrical but provocative piece of work.'

He was also pleased that author Mike Punter had also supplied a friend of his to realise the complex effects. 'Ben is a young magician who comes with a wealth of talent and a real knowledge of the world of Victorian magic.'

Ben laughs when he describes his role in the production process. 'I am responsible for the darker side of things,' he says.

Colin was terrifically exciting to work on a show which relishes its ominous gothic atmosphere and made such wonderful creative use of different theatrical traditions.

'Without wanting to give too much away, the premise is based on the interaction between two real people and hypothesises about what may have happened if a certain set of circumstances came to pass,' he said.

'What we can say is that there are a lot of inanimate objects which take on a life of their own. Audiences may even glimpse a ghost. For me what is exciting is that you never really know what on stage may become a threat.

'We have all been in a darkened room, something has cast a shadow and we have seen it as a person glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. The best scary, thrilling subjects are the ones which are open to debate. Did I really see that?'

Ben said that he has spent a great deal of time researching the time and making sure that effects and the illusions match the play.

'All the effects are 100% Victorian. There's no digital trickery here or modern bits of business. All the illusions are achieved in exactly the same way that the old masters of the music hall would have achieved them.'

Colin added that although the effects in the show are startling he is anxious that everything appears balanced.

'The effects are right. I want to say subtle but subtle isn't the right word. They are appropriate for the story. They serve the story but they are not an end in themselves.'

Ben adds: 'If we do our job well people will have to suspend their disbelief to the point where they'll go along for the ride.'

t Stagefright, Bury Theatre Royal, February 9-25, �16-�10, 01284 769505,