Review: Frankenstein at Greenwich Theatre

200 years after Mary Shelley wrote her classic gothic novel, Frankenstein returns to the stage in the skilled hands of Blackeyed Theatre. Adapted by John Ginman, this concise, two-hour retelling is suitably chilling and atmospheric while remaining family friendly, and is executed to perfection by a multi-talented cast of five… or should that be six?

Keeping true to the “story within a story within a story” format of Shelley’s novel, Eliot Giuralarocca’s production is set on the ship of Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, who rescues the exhausted Victor Frankenstein from the ice. Walton becomes fascinated by the mysterious stranger’s story of how, driven by crazed ambition, he built and gave life to a Creature, only to reject it and in doing so, drive it into a destructive cycle of loneliness and despair that ended up costing him everything.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The story, spanning several years, moves quickly – from Geneva to Ingolstadt to London to Scotland, and far beyond – and the cast do likewise. While Ben Warwick is on stage throughout as the wild-eyed, fast-talking, increasingly dishevelled Frankenstein, his fellow cast members are scarcely less busy. Each takes on multiple roles within the story, while still finding time to pop round the back of the stage and bring Ron McAllister’s dramatic soundtrack to life on timpani, cymbals and a variety of other ingenious, home-made instruments.

Act 1 is largely there to set up the story, and is quite science-heavy as Frankenstein describes his studies and his urgent desire to create life. But it’s in Act 2 that the production becomes truly electrifying, with the first real appearance of Yvonne Stone’s life-size Bunraku style puppet. Built from rope and cloth, with blank, staring eyes, the Creature is manipulated so skilfully by the cast, and voiced so perfectly by Louis Labovitch, that it’s genuinely possible to forget the actors are there at all, and to think of Frankenstein’s creation as entirely separate from the other characters they play: kind, beautiful Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), Victor’s supportive friend Henry (Max Gallagher), Walton, the explorer hanging on his every word, but not necessarily for the right reasons (Ashley Sean-Cook), and a multitude of cameo appearances as other minor characters. This is a production that’s about so much more than the impressive individual performances; it’s a seamless ensemble effort that requires everyone to be in exactly the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Victoria Spearing’s set takes inspiration from the ship on which the story begins and ends, and as Frankenstein narrates his tale, it springs to life from the materials around him. So the sail becomes a river; the Creature is formed from bundles and sacks of old rope and rags; more ropes are transformed into the electric wires that finally give it life. It’s testament both to the actors’ performance and the simple, descriptive style of John Ginman’s script, that without ever leaving the ship’s deck, we find ourselves transported to workshops, stormy mountaintops, courtrooms and even looking out over the quiet beauty of Lake Geneva.

I remember being a bit surprised the first time I read Frankenstein, because it felt a bit tame, not the out-and-out horror I’d been expecting. Similarly, Blackeyed Theatre’s excellent production doesn’t set out to shock us, but instead to send us home with a creeping unease as we contemplate the dangerous implications of arrogant human ambition. Though there’s certainly an element of suspense, the Creature’s crimes (most of which we don’t even see committed) provoke more sadness than fear, while he himself is so human that it’s harder to shrug his deeds off as merely the work of the supernatural – and so ironically it’s humanity, rather than monstrosity, that’s most likely to keep us awake at night.

Frankenstein is at Greenwich Theatre until 11th February, then continues on tour.

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