Steel yourself for the first and final kiss

Dracula at Sandal Castle.
Dracula at Sandal Castle.
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Don’t be too surprised if you get measured for a coffin at the Botanical Gardens in Sheffield…

Heartbreak Productions are bringing their version of Dracula to the gardens later this month and the tale is told by a group of Victorian undertakers. Ahead of that, Heartbreak’s version of Alice – an Extraordinary Adventure is at the venue this weekend.

The scenario for the show is that the audience are gathered to hear readings from the journal of Jonathan Harker and his encounters with Dracula at his memorial service. However, the undertakers get carried away and start acting out the story instead.

Nigel Billing, who plays both Dracula and his arch-enemy Van Helsing, said: “We don’t take it too seriously. There are some laughs, but there still is a bit of horror, rather than being straight and serious.”

He added: “It is going to be a good show because it is unusual and not the usual outdoor production circuit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet and the other stuff.

“It’s good for the company to do something a bit more risqué than the usual fare.”

Nigel is having a great time playing the title role: “He is a monster ultimately. In the first part of the play he’s an old, creepy, manipulative and horrible creature. Then he goes to London to seek some fresh blood and makes himself younger and romps around a bit!

“Then he kills Lucy and is chased by Van Helsing.”

Nigel said that the play is quite a faithful adaptation of the original Bram Stoker novel.

He added: “I get cast as a villain quite a lot. At the same time Van Helsing is a hero, which is good, and quite opposite to him. It’s good for an actor, having that juxtaposition of roles to get into.

“Most people think of Dracula as either Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman. In this piece he’s more of a presence, a constant theme throughout the whole show. It’s not a huge part.

“There’s a lot of scenes where he doesn’t say anything, he’s just doing his thing, so it’s about finding a way of doing that and making it enjoyable for people.

“Dracula’s not a hugely animated person so I’ve been finding ways to make him more interesting.

“On the other hand, Van Helsing talks a huge amount. We all play different roles and everyone doubles up.

“Because it’s a play within a play it doesn’t take itself too seriously. As we’re a bunch of undertakers acting out the story, we can come out of character and back into the undertaker characters and make comments to the audience.”

Nigel said that it can be tricky playing a character that some people are obsessed with.

“I had a woman come up to me during the interval, asking ‘did you see Gary Oldman playing Dracula? Perhaps you could be a bit more like him, a bit slower and more menacing?’ I’m trying my best but I’m not Gary Oldman, I don’t have all the prosthetics and make-up.”

Nigel knows where he may encounter his toughest audience, though.

“We’re doing it in Whitby at the abbey overlooking the sea, which is as good as it gets.

“I’m looking forward to Whitby but I’m wondering what all the Goths are going to say. I’ve got the cloak and the teeth, what more do you want?!”

Acting outdoors has its own challenges, such as having limited sets.

“We use staging and props to create different times within the story. There’s always something going on. Those are things about the play that people are enjoying as much as the story itself.”

Nigel has toured with Heartbreak before and is looking forward to coming back to Sheffield. “It’s always good fun. Audiences in Sheffield, the North-East and Manchester are really up for it.”

He lives in Cornwall, fitting in a bit of cheffing and painting and decorating work in Newquay between acting jobs, but he hasn’t missed out on the great weather this year.

“It’s been seriously hot this time, we’ve just been boiling. The only place it rained was in Manchester, obviously!.”

Rain is usually the bane of an outdoor performance, particularly one where the actors are in Victorian frock coats and top hats. They are pretty hard to dry out between shows, apparently.

Dracula is at the Botanical Gardens on Thursday, August 22 to Saturday 24. For tickets, go to www.heartbreakproductions.co.uk