Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Set in 1878 in London this novel is an atmospheric tour de force.  Telling the story of Bram Stoker’s life as a theatre manager in London where he meets the eccentric and fabulously talented actor and Chief of the Lyceum Theatre Henry Irving and his leading lady, the enigmatic and beautiful Ellen Terry.  Although a work of fiction, it is based on real events, making it (if it were possible) an even more fascinating read.

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Bram Stoker had been a theatre critic in Dublin which is where he came to the attention of Henry Irving.  Irving invites him to manage the Lyceum Theatre in London.    Bram has just married Florence Balcombe in haste, and both will repent at leisure.  She was the former flame of Oscar Wilde, who makes a brief appearance in the novel.  Stoker becomes bewitched by the beautiful Ellen Terry and his obsession with both her and his work at the theatre leaves Florence abandoned and desolate.

The novel is structured in Three Acts and the story includes a mix of letters, witness testimony and recollections.  The atmosphere is what makes this novel utterly captivating.  London in all its gothic undertones, as the Jack the Ripper murders cast a dark shadow and the haunted theatre seems destined to curses and misfortune.

The relationship between Bram Stoker and Henry Irving adds greatly to the story.  Although Irving treats Stoker with disdain and utter contempt, he needs Stoker more than Stoker needs him, and their co-dependent relationship becomes a true friendship by the end.  Or at least I like to believe it does!

Joseph O’Connor has such a talent for making a city come alive on the page and the atmosphere of London and the goings on in the theatre make this novel an absolute joy to read.  His writing is incandescent, and I would re-read this novel happily, knowing I would get something more from it every time.

It’s a fascinating look at the writer of one of the most enduring classics of our time – Dracula, and the demons he faced as a writer and a man.

I recommend this novel without hesitation.  One of my favourite reads in a long time.  I will now dash off to order ‘Ghost Light’ which I believe is also set in the theatre.

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