THIS is the story of Bad Girls, Coronation Street and Hollyoaks actor James Gaddas happening upon Bram Stoker’s original handwritten manuscript of Dracula.
He duly reads of strange encounters in the Count’s castle in Transylvania, his ghostly arrival on a ship of death off the coast of Whitby, his midnight seductions, and a heroic pursuit across Europe in a race against the setting of the sun.
So far, so familiar, but this document contains pages never published, leading Gaddas to a terrifying discovery, one that he shares with the Grand Opera House audience in York on Monday (21/2/2022) in his solo show Dracula – One Man’s Search For The Truth.
“What if everything we thought we knew was just the beginning? What if it’s not a work of fiction but a warning? What if the legend is real?” ponders James, who will bring the original version to life before sharing his discovery in a performance with one actor, 15 characters and one monumental decision. “Are some things better left unburied,” he must discern.
Are you telling the “truth” in this adaptation, James? “It’s more like Boris Johnson’s ‘truth’,” he says. “It’s conjecture. It’s a way of being able to do a one-man version of Dracula without just concentrating on the end.”
Born in Teesside, James recalls Dracula being the first horror film he saw when he was only 11. “I was staying with my grandparents,” he recalls. “I went to bed, but being typically adventurous, I tiptoed downstairs, turned on the telly, and there it was: Dracula, starring Peter Cushing.”
Gaddas, now 61, initially had the chance to appear in Dracula with a small-scale theatre company in Bath 40 years ago when training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. “I was going to do it, but then I got offered work for my Equity Card, and there was nothing for me in doing Dracula as it was a non-Equity production,” he says.
The idea of doing his own Dracula show first came after watching programmes about searching for lost Second World War treasure. “You watch, knowing from the start they won’t find anything, and they still haven’t after an hour, with all those looks to the camera, but it made me think, ‘wouldn’t it be fascinating to find Stoker’s original version of Dracula?’.
Gaddas was duly asked to voice one of those “lost treasures” investigations into the roots of Stoker’s manuscript, taking him to Romania, where he travelled around Dracula country with a film crew and director in jeeps. “But then something goes wrong with the filming and we have to come back to England,” he says.
Whereupon he took up the role of abusive care-home worker Cormac Ranger in Hollyoaks, shooting episodes sporadically in 2020 and 2021. “I was doing Hollyoaks when lockdown started, so I was left kicking my heels and started looking further into the Stoker story, deciding to write my adaptation in lockdown in London,” says James.
“The idea is that Stoker had been asked by Van Helsing to put this genuine document in book form and I then take it upon myself to take up that story – and by trying to tell it like an investigative journalist, it allows you to play with how Stoker had everything flying around all over the place – the timelines, the newspaper cuttings, the journals – when he was writing the book.
“In my show, the search for the truth becomes an obsession, and that psychological side of a story is such a strong part of a solo show.”
Gaddas previously wrote a solo play in Australia in 1989 called Shadow Boxing. “It was about a gay boxer,” he says. “It came about when this actor, David Field, said, ‘write me a one-man show’, and his dad had been a boxer. That play was revived on an Arts Council tour over here two years ago.”
Gaddas knew what form his Dracula show should take. “Doing such a classic piece, I wanted to get away from just standing there enunciating the book,” he says. “We’ve come to the point where we expect Dracula to be a comedy, whereas really it isn’t. It’s much more like Nosferatu, rooted in Eastern European ideology, while playing with what happens to someone when sense ends and obsession begins. It’s that archetypal thing where an obsession can take over.”
He may be performing on his own, but he has an impressive production team that has created the show with him, led by director Pip Minnithorpe, UK associate director of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.
Illusion design is by John Bulleid, who provided the Olivier Award-winning illusions for The Worst Witch, and Deborah Radin has provided the movement direction.
The show’s original music is by composer and Downton Abbey and Ted Lasso actor Jeremy Swift. “I’ve known Jez since he was 11, when we were at school together,” says James.
“He’s always had a love of music, and we’d write songs together; he’d write the tunes, I’d write the lyrics. Anyway, we were on this walk on Hampstead Heath, when he said, ‘what are you doing in lockdown?’, and I told him I was writing a one-man play. ‘Would you like me to write the music?’ he said.”
Tomorrow, Gaddas will be playing no fewer than 15 characters. “It’s slightly easier than when I did Billy Bishop Goes To War, a [John MacLachlan Gray ] musical about a Canadian First World War flying ace, where I had to play 23 characters – and I didn’t get to choose those characters, but here, for Dracula, I could.”
As the interview draws to a close, Gaddas offers a final thought on Stoker’s sense of drama in his writing. “Today, he would probably have been writing episodes for Coronation Street,” he says. Imagine that.
James Gaddas in Dracula – One Man’s Search For The Truth, Grand Opera House, York, February 21, 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.