At first glance, the Brockley Jack’s choice for their final show of the year doesn’t seem particularly festive. But while it may not be a Christmas story – nor, in its original form, a particularly cheery one – The Invisible Man proves to be another winner for the theatre’s in-house creative team, and easily as entertaining as the best panto in town.
Based on the H.G. Wells novel and adapted for the stage by Derek Webb, The Invisible Man finds us in the small English village of Iping, where a stranger wrapped in bandages (Shaun Chambers) has just taken a room at the pub. Bad-tempered and mysterious, he’s quickly viewed with suspicion by the locals, among them his landlady Mrs Hall (Matthew Parker) and the village doctor, Cuss (Scott Oswald). When his secret is revealed, the Invisible Man – a scientist unable to reverse his own discovery – embarks on a reign of terror against anyone who stands in his way.
In Webb’s adaptation, fifteen characters are played by three actors – with all the ensuing chaos that ratio implies. And yet it’s perfectly managed chaos in the hands of director Kate Bannister, costume designer Martin Robinson, and of course the multi-talented cast, each of whom juggles their various roles with great enthusiasm, and without missing a beat. Wisely, both script and production openly acknowledge the multi-roling aspect, and play it for maximum laughs, delighting the audience with tongue-in-cheek observations like the fact that the three policemen (all played by Chambers) all look alike, or that Dr Cuss must always carry a medical bag to avoid confusion.
As you might expect from a show in which the main character is invisible, the production also pulls off some impressive magic tricks. Karl Swinyard’s set is deceptive in its simplicity; there are several hidden secrets waiting to be discovered as the story unfolds. Wine glasses hang in mid-air, signposts turn all by themselves, and the actors – Scott Oswald, in particular – hold entire conversations, including physical interactions, with thin air. (And they do it so successfully that it’s almost possible to believe there really is an invisible man up on stage with them.)
For all the comedy, however, the show does follow Wells’ original plot pretty closely, so inevitably there are some serious moments. The Invisible Man is the target of suspicion in Iping because he’s different and doesn’t fit any of the traditional village stereotypes, and it’s ultimately this isolation that pushes him on to a dark path. There’s a political element too; he speaks more than once about the dangers of capitalism, claiming he wants to steal from the bankers and redistribute their wealth – a particularly topical reference given recent events.
We’ve come to expect great things from the Brockley Jack team, and once again this production does not disappoint. Already a compelling story, this adaptation keeps us entertained and enthralled with its slapstick humour and just the right amount of playful audience engagement, but never detracts from the story’s more solemn themes. A thoroughly enjoyable alternative to the more traditional Christmas fare – get your hands on a ticket if you can.
The Invisible Man is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th January.