Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s new adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde takes the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and fills in some of the gaps. While this might not please everyone, I must admit I haven’t read the book, so personally I had no problem with the plot’s bare bones being substantially fleshed out. Inspired by Lane’s own experience following an accident that permanently damaged his neck and back, this production humanises the troubled Dr Jekyll and offers some justification for his actions… and even manages to raise a bit of sympathy for the villainous Mr Hyde.

The basic plot of the novella is reasonably well known; mild-mannered, respected scientist Dr Jekyll invents a serum that transforms him into a violent, remorseless alter ego: Mr Hyde. In this version, however, he also has a love interest – his friend Hastie’s wife Eleanor, whose fascination with his work and dissatisfaction with her own uninspiring life make her an unwitting catalyst to the devastating events that follow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The cast is small – just four actors play all the characters between them – but perfectly formed, working comfortably together as an ensemble but also impressing individually. Jack Bannell in particular gives an excellent physical performance, his demeanour, voice, and personality completely changing before our eyes as he transforms from the stooped figure of Jekyll into the cold, predatory Hyde. At first brusque and dismissive, Jekyll is softened by his love for Eleanor and his own weakening body, his desperation over both causing him to experiment on himself. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand – even if still impossible to condone – what led him to this point, and to sympathise with the temptation that keeps drawing him back to the physically stronger and more passionate Hyde.

Paige Round is similarly impressive as Eleanor. Far from a token love interest, she finds herself on her own dark path as she breaks away from good guy husband Hastie and is drawn inexorably to Hyde. It’s a bit of a cliché, maybe – women like a bad boy, etc – but the actors make it believable, with a sizzling chemistry that’s noticeably absent between Eleanor and Ashley Sean-Cook’s nice but boring Hastie. The inclusion of Eleanor also allows for a bit of discussion on gender issues; both Hastie and Jekyll initially dismiss her interest in and understanding of their work, and it’s largely Hastie’s expectation that she stay at home and play the little wife that pushes her towards Hyde in the first place.

The cast is completed by Zach Lee as Jekyll’s concerned friend and lawyer Gabriel Utterson; though his primary role is to narrate the uncovering of Jekyll’s secret, he also appears in arguably the most visually striking scene in the play: an intense, dramatic slow motion sequence that’s so perfectly choreographed we can feel every blow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The play’s performances are supported by Claire Childs’ lighting design, which makes great use of bold colours and projected shadows to establish a threatening atmosphere from the beginning, and haunting melodies composed by Tristan Parkes beautifully performed by Paige Round and the rest of the cast.

While perhaps not the story Robert Louis Stevenson intended, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde does remain faithful to the central plot, and offers an interesting – if rather more forgiving – interpretation of the story and its central character. Touching on a variety of themes, including gender issues, mental health and the ethical responsibilities of science, this chilling new adaptation certainly gives us plenty to think about.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from Blackeyed Theatre continues on tour until March 24th.

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.

Interview: John Ginman, Frankenstein

2016 is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and critically acclaimed Blackeyed Theatre are marking the occasion with a brand new adaptation of the classic horror story. The production, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca, will feature Bunraku-style puppetry designed and built by Yvonne Stone, with live music composed by Ron McAllister – and sees the company reunite with John Ginman, who wrote their hugely successful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 2013.

“It’s refreshing to work again with such a talented team who have a commitment to high standards,” John explains. “Blackeyed Theatre’s work keeps evolving but the key ingredients are always the same: a passion for distinctive live theatre, strong creative leadership, a company of multi-skilled performers, and a determination to take bold, innovative live shows to audiences throughout the country.”

Frankenstein, Blackeyed Theatre

In 1816, nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley composed the first draft of Frankenstein as part of a writing competition with Lord Byron, John Polidori and Percy Shelley, during a wet summer’s stay at Lake Geneva. Two centuries later, her novel continues to both fascinate and horrify readers and audiences across the world. But how can we explain this enduring popularity?

“It’s partly a matter of genre,” John suggests. “Gothic fiction has been popular with readers for more than two centuries – though it’s fair to say that Frankenstein has reached its largest audiences through its numerous stage, and later film, adaptations. In writing Frankenstein Mary Shelley has created a powerful new version of an ancient myth. Its narrative seeks unashamedly to ‘chill the blood’, which readers and audiences love. However, the story engages us even more deeply because it still poses questions that challenge us. Should we limit what scientists are allowed to research, in an age when boundaries to knowledge no longer seem to exist? And how can we ensure that we take responsibility for the discoveries we make?”

As with any classic work, adapting Frankenstein was not without its challenges: “The key challenge is to translate a 200-page novel into two hours of theatre for audiences who may or may not be familiar with the book. You have to be selective and identify what’s essential in terms of story, character, tone and themes. The bottom line is that the story has to be clear. It also has to work as theatre, and you have to achieve this with images, space, sound and rhythm, of which the spoken words are also a part. You have to remember that as you are writing.

“The other challenge is to honour the novelist’s vision. In this case I wanted to put on stage the important aspects of the novel that are often excluded in adaptations. We’ve used Robert Walton’s story as a frame to focus the whole action, which allows The Creature to tell the story from his point of view – it’s clearly important to Mary Shelley that we understand how he thinks and feels.

“It’s also wise to be aware of any shortcomings the book might have. In this case, surprisingly perhaps, the female characters have less depth than the men, and I’ve worked to give more substance to Elizabeth, in particular.”

John reflects on his previous collaboration with Blackeyed Theatre back in 2013: “Dracula confirmed my sense that you can achieve almost anything in a live show with very simple theatrical elements, and that you have to trust the skill and versatility of the performers to create the effects you need. The script is like a musical score and so really comes to life when it’s being performed. Also, I noted the hunger of audiences for powerful live theatre in venues large and small the length of the UK, and that’s been very encouraging.”

In a unique and exciting twist, the production will feature a full-size 6’4″ Bunraku-style puppet, which needs up to three people to manipulate it. It’s been designed and built by Yvonne Stone, who’s working with Blackeyed Theatre for the first time, and whose previous credits include Warhorse and His Dark Materials for the National Theatre.

What does John feel this use of puppetry adds to the play? “That will be for the audience to say! Puppets can be remarkably expressive and add more dimensions to the experience of a live show. Bunraku has a wonderful, long tradition in Japanese theatre, but we’re using its techniques here in a completely contemporary way.”

Audiences across the UK will have the opportunity to see the show as it embarks on an extensive tour later this month, taking in over 30 venues before Christmas and additional locations in the spring. “My chief hope is that the audience will enjoy a powerful two hours of theatre, something quite distinct from watching a film version, for example,” concludes John. “I also hope that they will realise there is much more to the novel than the familiar horror story about a crazed scientist.”

Frankenstein opens at Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, on 22nd September. Full tour dates and ticket info can be found on Blackeyed Theatre’s website.