Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

12/11/2016 - 10/12/2016

Production Details

Mad-cap, festive farce at the Fortune Theatre!

The staff of Fortune Manor invite you to: The Mystery of Irma Vep!

The butler will welcome you at the entrance as you are transported back in time in this hilarious mad-cap satire of a Victorian melodrama about what really happened to Irma Vep, the Lady of the House. Be prepared for howling werewolves, motley mummies, and villainous vampires everywhere you turn in this rapid fire, festive farce!

The Mystery of Irma Vep promises to be a hilarious end to 2016, with actors Stephen Butterworth and Will Spicer bringing a whole host of characters to life in this mile-a-minute adventure that will have you howling with laughter.

Find out more about The Mystery of Irma Vep at

Fortune Theatre, 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin
12 November – 10 December, 2016
Performances: Tuesday, 6.00pm; Wednesday-Saturday, 7.30pm; Sunday, 4.00pm
Opening Night: Saturday, 12 November, 7.30pm, Fortune Theatre.
Members’ Briefing: Sunday, 13 November. Meet at the Fortune bar at 3.00pm and join Director Jonathon Hendry for a lively informal chat about The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Forum: Tuesday, 15 November. Join the cast and crew for an open question and answer session following the 6.00pm show. 
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours (including interval)
Tickets: Adults $45
Early Bird (booking 1 month in advance) $37.50
Opening Week Ticket (Sunday-Thursday) $37.50
Senior Citizens/Community Services Card $35
Fortune Theatre Members $32
Tertiary Students $22 (2-for-1 tickets on Wednesdays with ID)
High School Students $17.50
Group Discount (6+) $35
Bookings: 231 Stuart Street, Dunedin | 03 4778323 | | @fortunetheatre

Stephen Butterworth
Will Spicer

Set Design: Peter King
Sound Design: Matthew Morgan
Lighting Design: Stephen Kilroy
Costume Design: Maryanne Wright-Smyth
Stage Management and Props: George Wallace and Erica Browne  

Theatre ,

Exquisite Theatre of the Ridiculous

Review by Terry MacTavish 13th Nov 2016

I defy you not to experience thrills of delighted anticipation just looking up at the creepy writing of the play’s title above the gorgeous Trinity Methodist Church, so lovingly transformed in the 1970s to the Fortune Theatre. Originally designed by renowned nineteenth century architect, R A Lawson, to whom Dunedin owes so much of its romantic gothic character, the stone building with its turrets and towering stained glass windows is an achingly perfect venue for this hilarious spoof of the whole horror genre.

Who could be immune to the charms of the Penny Dreadful, that melodramatic pulp fiction beloved by the Victorians, especially when the style of the thriller novelettes is cheerfully mixed up with the old movies based on dark, passionate classics like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.

After such a week as we have seen, our dreams for a more caring, humane world trumped by the farcical conclusion to the American elections, the pure escapism and splendid silliness of a parody about fictional monsters is exactly what we need. Thankfully, the Fortune has unearthed the late playwright Charles Ludlam of the aptly named Ridiculous Theatre Company to mount a sparkling production of The Mystery of Irma Vep. (That’s right, mess around with her name until you work out the anagram!)

Ludlam has whipped up a fantastical concoction of practically every horror character and convention ever invented, and insisted that just two actors of the same gender play out his story of Lady Enid, the nervous second wife of Lord Edgar the famous Egyptologist, living in a manor deep in the English countryside with two sinister servants. Edgar is still in thrall to the memory of his first wife, Irma, and is obsessed with hunting down the wolf (or werewolf) that killed their son. But when Enid is attacked by a vampire and put in an asylum, he sets off to Egypt for a cure. Through the machinations of a dubious native guide, he becomes entangled with the mummy of an Egyptian princess, also more than she seems. Will Edgar be able to defeat vampires, werewolves, mummies and jealous rivals to reunite with Lady Enid? Blatantly preposterous, and enormously enjoyable.  

I am in very superior company tonight: an Emeritus Professor of literature, no less, who is clearly hugely tickled by the play’s shameless borrowing from the classics, Shakespeare (“…from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring”) to Oscar Wilde (“…yet each man kills the thing he loves”).  It is a measure of Ludlam’s mastery of every possible form of theatre and this play’s wide appeal that less sophisticated audience members, like the Elizabethan groundlings, are enjoying at the same time the equally shameless rude jokes and puns. “Get away from me, you beast, with your double-entendres!” exclaims the darkly hirsute maid Jane as revolting swineherd Nicodemus tries to demonstrate how well he is hung.

Director Jonathon Hendry has perfectly understood the genre and ensured that every element fits seamlessly to make an irresistible end-of-tough-year treat. Hendry’s affectionate exploitation of the most absurd theatrical devices complements Ludlam’s mad script almost flawlessly. The cracking pace ensures we are scrambling to anticipate the next plot twist or onstage arrival of a new character, actors sometimes garnering applause by making entrances mere seconds after their exit as someone else. The audience is loud too in its appreciation of the clever visual jokes, like the camel riders with their tiny legs dangling above the suspiciously chunky ones of the camel, and the stage tricks like the blood flowing eerily from Irma’s portrait.

Partway through the second half the plot twists and narrative leaps get a bit much for me, but the pace and dexterity of the entertaining performances hold me during the denouement, and in the end I am quite satisfied to overlook various implausibilities and accept the utterly ludicrous explanation of the mystery.

The set by Peter King draws gasps of admiration, representing in intricate detail a grand English manor with French doors, wood panelling, crimson striped wall paper, chandelier, and a full suit of armour, plus a huge fireplace, over which is hung the commanding portrait of deceased first wife, Irma Vep.  The ceiling however has melted away to reveal soaring arched windows against a dramatic sky with the silhouette of a raven.  There is one astonishingly effective set change, to an Egyptian tomb that encloses an imposing sarcophagus. (We don’t notice the change back to the manor, as Egyptian tour guide Alcazar is hawking his wares noisily through the auditorium.)

Maryanne Wright-Smyth has outdone herself with a marvellous array of costumes, all cleverly designed to be dashed on and off in the wings, the odd flash of hairy leg appearing from a back opening merely adding to the fun.  The dresses concocted as costumes for male actors in drag are simply delectable, especially the ravishing Edwardian tea-gowns of Lady Enid (though perhaps Irma’s gown, which Enid is tricked into wearing, should be more striking). The male costumes range from Edgar’s cute plus-fours to the flowing robes of that mysterious Egyptian while, according to the glossy programme, the monsters needed a little help from Fairies and Wizards Costume Hire!

From the opening crack of thunder and flash of vicious lightning heralding the entry, to spooky music, of Sinister Housekeeper Jane (think Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers) holding a candle under her chin, we know the sound and lighting gang will be working frenziedly. Of course we have seen the Fortune pull off this sort of thing before – remember The Hound of the Baskervilles – but still this must test their endurance. Nevertheless Anna Vandebosch, one of Technical Supervisor Lindsay Gordon’s experienced team, operates the complex plans of Stephen Kilroy (lighting) and Matt Morgan (sound) with impressive skill.

The actors are ably supported by surely desperately busy George Wallace and Erica Browne, the Stage Managers who truly manage everything that’s needed: the miraculous lightning-swift changes, cunning props and ingenious tricks that reconstruct all our favourite horror clichés. We even see some lovely old film of the early Egyptian archaeologists.

Most crucial of all, the actors Stephen Butterworth and Will Spicer are a dream pairing, both consummate comedians who never hesitate to go completely over the top, alternately supporting and competing with each other.  They play extreme emotion with absurd conviction, shrieking and leaping high with exaggerated terror, but can also deliver throwaway lines with laughable insouciance: “She looks sinister.” – “She’s dead.” – “Perhaps that’s the reason.” They endow each of the eight characters with comical quirks, changing their accents and mode of moving with confident ease.  

In the role of elegant, ex-actress Lady Enid, Butterworth has found a part to match his talent and versatility. He moves superbly, with delicately expressive hand gestures and lovely posture, enticing the audience to the brink of applause over such a simple but beautifully executed move as a swift, graceful drop to the floor. His horrible contortions as disgusting, wooden-legged and leering Nicodemus are a total contrast – watch for his efforts to climb up to the portrait! 

Spicer is every British hero as upright Sir Edgar, morphing most wonderfully into Jane the creepy housekeeper, who has a crush on Sir Edgar – another absurdity to be milked. Spicer and Butterworth appear to revel in their multiple roles, and act, sing, and even tap dance (!) smoothly together, bouncing off each other with great spirit – literally bouncing, in one unforgettable scene of unbridled lust.

All the organ stops are pulled out for Opening Night, from spooky Rocky Horror hosts borrowed from Improsauros to welcome us, to a smashing supper by Fusion, with spicy Egyptian kebabs and cupcakes with tiny vampire teeth marks. But even without such treats, The Mystery of Irma Vep is a show pretty well everyone will adore, indulging our sneaky pleasure in horror while flattering our intelligence by assuming our appreciation of the clever satire. Ludlam’s genius breaks all the rules, but I guess when democracy lets us down, we should opt for anarchy. So what could be a finer, funnier choice for the silly season than this exquisite example of the Theatre of the Ridiculous?


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