There are certain things that we expect from vampires: they must drink blood, fear light, be immortal and be killed by a stake through the heart. However, new elaborations are gathering like cobwebs as we replace their cloaks with leather jackets and bring them into the modern day. Cuddles, a vampire tale by Joseph Wilde, foregrounds the agonising vulnerability these rules can cause, by making its vampire a 13-year-old girl, unable to leave her windowless room and utterly dependent on her older sister, for blood and love alike.
The premise is straight out of the nastier kind of fairytale, narrated like a campfire ghost story by upended torchlight. Eve is the unexpected child who landed in her father’s bed, following her longed and wished for older sister Tabby – her sister is cast as a princess and she as a monster, who must be hidden away in darkness pierced only by the odd ray of guilty affection. The dynamics of this two-hander are never allowed to stay simple, though. Rendah Haywood as the older sister, Tabby, shifts from being a princess to a ball-breaking business woman to a gauche woman making her first forays into dating. She manages to find all the slick, sit-com-style laughs in her monologues of city life, but there’s still a vulnerability to her that leaches out through the cracks in her patent and polyester armour. Carla Langley couldn’t be more convincing as a snarling, feral, blood-soaked child, raised by the Brothers Grimm rather than wolves.
With no vampiric glamour, she’s an earthy, filthy thing, trapped like a pale white grub in a cocoon of her sister’s fierce rules, governing even how the pair are allowed to cuddle. Wilde’s writing gives the sisters complex, layered monologues and dialogues that point at the different layers of reality they’re living in, exploiting their vastly different experiences for maximum ironic effect. Eve inhabits a twisted Enid Blyton world of Monopoly, jam sandwiches and fantasy stories that are just as real to her as those that Tabby brings back from the world outside, and the strange middle ground the pair find to talk in is agonising and hilarious in turn. Pablo Baz’s lighting design is refreshingly flexible, breaking up the single room’s moods into different shades of fantasy and reality.
A lot of this play is genuinely, brutally shocking – these magical sisters aren’t Charmed or charming, and the piece is more of an exploration of the abuser-abused dynamic than of the vampire myth. Although the horrifying revelations are evenly spaced and punctuated with lashings of black humour, the atmosphere can feel grindingly bleak. A swifter pace in the second half could help bring out the elements of farce layered through the story, particularly in Tabby’s disastrous dating life. Still, Cuddles impressively transforms the most stylish of scary stories into something rough, grubby and grotesquely hilarious – this vampire’s draught of blood never looked less like red wine.
Cuddles is playing at Ovalhouse Theatre until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Ovalhouse Theatre website.