The Guardian


Clare Brennan Kit Buchan

Dracula: Mina’s Reckoning

Thunder, lightning, very, very… atmospheric and, according to the school party sitting near me, at times quite frightening. Sound and music, light and projections are the most striking features of this National Theatre of Scotland and Aberdeen Performing Arts’s coproduction, a new reworking by Morna Pearson of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.

Platforms and gantries stand stark against jagged, fragmented back walls (Kenneth MacLeod’s design). At first, this backdrop seems solid. It encloses those incarcerated in the “Aberdeen asylum for women”, where new arrival Mina (Danielle Jam) has a tale to tell. As in the 2021 version of the story, by the touring company Imitating the Dog, Mina is the central character, recollecting events via flashbacks.

In Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, the backdrop starts to come to life: thin red lines trickle down walls, while distant wolves howl and Mina’s fiance, Jonathan (Catriona Faint), is menaced by Liz Kettle’s blackclad, eerily gliding Count, keen to reach Aberdeenshire and its long, dark winter nights. As the action progresses and blood is drunk (Mina’s friend, Lucy, is the first victim), the red trickle along the back walls swells and spreads until it resembles a network of pulsating veins, enclosing all (Lewis Den Hertog, video; Aideen Malone, lighting).

Accompanying these visuals is Benji Bower’s emotion-stirring music, now menacingly rhythmic, now high-note intense (impelling at moments of crisis, elsewhere, it’s intrusive, swamping the actors and drowning their words).

The sound and light effects, a cross between Hammer horror and Victorian melodrama, come across well but they are not enough to carry the evening. Other aspects of the production are less satisfying. Pearson’s plot is patchy; characters and relationships are underdeveloped, leaving little for the actors to get their teeth into. Vicki Manderson’s movement direction injects dynamism and tension into Sally Cookson’s slow-paced direction. The lifeblood of the action is in its performances.

The Little Big Things

Theatreland’s newest venue, @sohoplace, finding its feet after only four shows to date, is put blissfully through its paces in this spanking new musical, one of very few in living memory to have its first production in the West End. Telling the true story of Henry Fraser, a promising young rugby player paralysed in a teenage accident, The Little Big Things (music, Nick Butcher; lyrics by Butcher and Tom Ling; book, Joe White; director, Luke Sheppard) is a lavish celebration of pragmatism with a curiously intimate relationship at its heart: the fraught bromance between the present-day Fraser, who uses a wheelchair, and his younger, nondisabled self.

Every string to this hi-tech building’s bow is put to use, from its interactive stage to the spine-tingling sound system, not to mention its accessibility, allowing disabled performers to take centre stage. Among these is Ed Larkin, a rugby player himself, in the lead role, providing a calm, comic nucleus around which his frantic parents and brothers spin in disarray. Another, Amy Trigg, shines as Agnes, the trenchant and bawdy physiotherapist who propels Henry’s miraculous recovery and reinvention as a painter.

This isn’t so much a story of human resilience as the story of one particular man’s superhuman resilience, and the sheer strength of Fraser’s character – his instant determination and deep reserves of humour and courage – means that we never truly doubt his ability to accept his injuries and prevail over them. This gives the show an infectious energy of hope and purpose, but at the expense of jeopardy and enduring discomfort. The intensely motivational atmosphere is reflected in the power-pop score, which defaults unapologetically to punchthe-air triumph.

Triumph, however, is no mean feat. Among stories of disability, there is no shortage of trauma and hardship, and The Little Big Things makes a convincing case instead for the power of gumption, gladness and gusto. This is most movingly expressed deep in Act 2, when the uninjured Fraser tells his older, disabled self: “I can’t wait to become you.”

Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto

V&A, London SW7; until 25 February 2024

The V&A’s new Chanel show, a reimagining of an exhibition originally staged at the Palais Galliera in Paris in 2020, begins and ends with utmost simplicity. The first thing the visitor sees, its ivory folds radiant in the dark, is a blouse of silk jersey with a sailor collar; the last is a rather severe black worsted suit and hat. Neither of these garments is especially stunning: the former is simply one of the earliest extant Chanel pieces, dating from 1916; the latter, designed in 1969, was bought by the V&A at a Christie’s sale of Chanel’s personal collection in 1978, seven years after her death. But together they bookend the displays stupendously. If the blouse speaks of inception – here is Chanel falling on the unadorned ease that would become her trademark – the suit brings to mind a priest racing to a bedside. Its long, dark jacket worked on me like smelling salts after a deep swoon.

What was Chanel like? How did this creature – “a peasant and a genius”, as her friend Diana Vreeland had it – come to make such a success of her life, let alone to enact such an enduring influence

out, Chanel temporarily closed the house, but ever the pragmatist she remained in Paris even after the city was occupied, having taken up with Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German spy. The exhibition notes that in 1941, the Nazis recorded her as a trusted source – and that recent research suggests she was an occasional agent for the French resistance too.

Chanel never married. She made her own life, this woman with a suntan and a circle that included Igor Stravinsky and Winston Churchill. But it’s a mistake to think of her as a heroine, feminist or otherwise. Her innovations are easily overstated; it was Paul Poiret who first told women to lose their corsets, not Chanel. If her sense of style was immaculate – instinctive, rather than intellectual – she didn’t much evolve as a designer; she simply repeated herself in a way that brooked no argument. Her true genius was for salesmanship. Having launched Chanel No 5 in 1921, she scented all manner of products with it, even brilliantine. Look at the travel-size cosmetics in this show – “Pour le weekend”, it says on a tiny pot of vanishing cream – and you realise that she saw the future.

The V&A’s exhibition, curated by Oriole Cullen, slyly captures some, if not all of this. The displays are both chronological and thematic, styles grouped together – evening wear, black dresses, dozens of her famous suits with their cropped and trimmed jackets – as if in an old-fashioned department store, and wandering them, spacious and cool, my critical faculties began to abandon me. How to pick out what I admired, rather than what I only longed to own?

But perhaps it’s the same thing in the end. A black sequin trouser suit from 1937; a pink lamé tunic from 1968; embroidered coats, feather-trimmed capes, resin cuffs with pâte de verre and diamante. The cumulative effect is stunning, and a little numbing. In a room that replicates the famous mirrored staircase at Rue Cambon, a gown on every step, I found myself wondering suddenly what it was all for: so many glorious frocks, and no human being allowed to wear them.

Laura Cumming is away