The Mystery of Irma Vep is a stupid production that doesn’t take itself seriously and is more intent on doing anything for a laugh than presenting the slightest hint at a lucid story or a plausible character. And I mean all of that as a compliment.
Instead, it is the equivalent to the class clown who is willing to do anything for a laugh, no matter how degrading ‘it’ may be. And a lot of the gags work, even if the play is built upon the premise of one joke: two actors play every character, male and female.
That is the crux of the production. Forget about following a plot, because writer Charles Ludlam certainly wasn’t concerned with one when writing this play two decades back. Any hint at a coherent story is quickly thrown out when plot comes in conflict with furthering the multiple role-playing and crossing-dressing elements, and any attempt to string together a description of the narrative is impossible.
But who cares? The success of any production of this piece lies with the two actors cast to play all of the parts, and this production has Andy Gray and Steven McNicoll, arguably two of Scotland’s best comedic actors. Gray and McNicoll have a ball onstage, and that permits the audience to laugh, both at them and with them. McNicoll is the more successful of the two with his entourage of characters. Gray is more hit-and-miss, finding fun ways to physically create characters but choosing to use voices that are at times difficult to understand.
The production looks great too. It’s well staged by director Ian Grieve, who gives the actors enough room to play but keeps them restrained enough to be focused. Designers Becky Minto (set), Kai Fischer (lights) and Alan Penman (sound/music) also have a field day, creating a design concept that is impressive but is also in line with the shenanigans.
But one must question: why bother with this script? The programme notes mention some great films that are considered satires on the horror genre, but the notes completely ignore why the films were successful. Pieces like Young Frankenstein, Scream and The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show were all both satirical and a celebration of horror films, but they also had compelling stories and interesting characters. They stand well on their own, whether one likes the horror genre or not.
Irma Vep has absolutely nothing on these pieces, and it doesn’t work as ‘satire’ because it doesn’t seem to understand the appeal. Instead, it just wants to be silly. There’s nothing wrong with ‘silly’, but it doesn’t constitute being called a ‘satire’ simply because it doesn’t take itself seriously. Nor does it allow for a comparison to any of the above films, all of which show the script up for the weak drivel it really is.
And yet, I was still entertained by Gray and McNicoll’s drive to make me laugh. The Mystery of Irma Vep might have a ridiculously weak script, but the production is still an enjoyable experience. You’ll probably laugh hard many times, even if you struggle to remember why five minutes after the fact.
Playing at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until March 14 and then playing at Perth Theatre, Perth, from March 19 to April 4.