Interview: Ross McGregor, Frankenstein

Arrows & Traps were last seen at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in February with their acclaimed production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now they’ve turned their attention to another classic novel: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“It’s the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel, so it seemed a great time to tackle the piece,” says director and writer Ross McGregor. “Frankenstein is so iconic as well, it’s ingrained in our literary and cinematic history, and there’s been over 100 different adaptations both on stage and screen. It’s such a flexible and deep piece of literature – I found the ideas that Shelley talks about in the novel to be fascinating and worthy of dramatic exploration. Plus, it’s just so much fun to do. There’s literally a scene when a monster made of dead people comes to life. You don’t get that in Alan Ayckbourn.”

Frankenstein is the eleventh show from Arrows & Traps, known for their innovative adaptations of literary classics – and it could be their most ambitious project yet. “In many ways, it has all the hallmarks of an Arrows show: the tight ensemble work, the physical pieces, the fluid staging and the excitement of seeing a classic story told in a new, and hopefully interesting, way,” says Ross. “What makes Frankenstein different from anything we’ve done before is that we’re telling three stories at once. Victor’s, The Creature’s, but also Mary Shelley’s. It’s a triple narrative all being told simultaneously, which makes for some exciting viewing.

“Also, this is the first production that I’ve actually written myself, as well as directing it, so rehearsals have been a voyage of discovery in terms of staging the piece, finding what works, what needs clarifying, and how best to tell the stories we want to tell. It’s been a fascinating and gruelling process of vision and revision. I’m slowly learning the importance of being able to kill your darlings.

“There are moments when it is as though the ghosts in my head are literally manifesting in front of me, which is very moving and humbling, and there is always a great relief when a particular bit or a specific scene is rehearsed and it ‘works’. So often what might look acceptable on paper doesn’t then work in performance, so it’s always lovely to see something that translates and makes the leap. The cast is bringing an awful lot to the roles though, and I’m constantly surprised by all the new layers they’re discovering. It’s been a joy to be involved in.”

Ross explains that in his research for the show, he became fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley: “Her world was filled with characters such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, her father William Godwin, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her sisters Jane and Fanny, Shelley’s wife Harriet – all of these people would have made a great play in their own right – but what principally struck me was the notion of all the strange parallels in her own life to Frankenstein. Now Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen, and although there were definitely things in her childhood that inspired her to write the book, her subsequent life after the novel’s publication shared many strange links to the book, almost as though she cursed herself by writing it. The more I delved into the real story around Frankenstein, the more I wanted to include it in the play.

“So yes, Mary is a main character in the show. And not just as a narrator, she has a part to play in it. She’s older now, suffering from a terminal brain tumour in fact, and is tormented by something that happened in her youth. Something that ties directly into Frankenstein. And so as we see the story of Victor and his Creature unfold, we also see Mary relive her past, with the cast playing roles in both worlds, leaping from one timeline to the other. It’s something of a rollercoaster to watch. I’m very excited about it.”

In adapting the novel, Ross encountered various challenges – one of which was sidestepping the traditional Hollywood image of Frankenstein’s monster. “Initially, I was very faithful,” he explains. “I had always seen the Creature as this lumbering, bolts in the neck, flat-headed lummox that groaned at people, but in the novel, he’s very graceful and agile. The Creature in the novel is very eloquent and possibly as smart as his creator. I wanted to try and mimic that, because I hadn’t found a version where that had ever been attempted.

“In the novel also, there’s no motivation for Victor’s need to create this monster – he just does it because he can. So I knew I wanted to humanise Victor and make him more sympathetic, more flawed, more human, more understandably motivated. So it’s been about balancing those two things. Also, the novel itself isn’t very dramatic and doesn’t lend itself easily to being dramatised. The iconic bits that you probably think of when you think of ‘Frankenstein’ are not from the novel. There’s no ‘IT’S ALIVE!’, there’s no character called Igor, there’s not even any mention of the Creature being scarred or covered in stitches or bolts. All of that is from the films.

“The novel concerns itself with ideas of nature versus nurture, of the perils of parenthood and the isolation caused by abandonment. The hubris of genius. So in adapting it, I have tried to stay true to Mary Shelley’s vision, whilst constructing something that stands on its own two feet as a piece of theatre. And from being in rehearsal, I can certainly tell you we’re making something inherently theatrical.”

The show’s cast includes a mix of Arrows veterans and new recruits: “The brilliant Christopher Tester plays Victor Frankenstein; Arrows fans may recall his recent performance as Raskolnikov in our last production Crime and Punishment, for which he was nominated for an Off West End Award for Best Male. We have the incredibly talented Cornelia Baumann returning to play Mary Shelley, after her recent turn as Olivia and Emilia in our repertory Shakespeare season of Twelfth Night and Othello last year, and we are honoured to have our resident movement director genius Will Pinchin playing the Creature, which I’m so excited about as I’ve wanted to get Will on stage in one of our shows for years. 

“We have Philip Ridout, of this year’s festival circuit hit Dogged fame, playing William Godwin, and recent Oxford School of Drama graduate Victoria Llewellyn playing Elizabeth Lavenza. I recently had the honour of directing for Fourth Monkey Theatre Company as part of their One Year Actor Training program so we’ve got three of their very talented graduates involved: Zoe Dales playing Agatha, Beatrice Vincent playing Fanny Imlay and Oliver Brassell playing Henry Clerval. It is an honour to have all these guys involved and the benefit of knowing who the cast were when the script was still under construction was that I could write it with them in mind and tailor it to them.”

With Halloween just around the corner, theatregoers in search of something a bit scary are likely to have plenty of options – so why should we book to see Frankenstein? Over to the writer: “It’s a gothic steampunk horror set in two different timelines, playing just before Halloween, in one of London’s most iconic and welcoming fringe venues, by a company that cares greatly for the source material and has spent the last three years working to hone their skills and push fringe theatre to the limit of what it can do in terms of ensemble, spectacle and excitement. Frankenstein is quite scary, quite funny, quite sad, and very very exciting. I’d definitely go, and I’m rubbish with scary things.”

Frankenstein opens at the Brockley Jack on 26th September, continuing until 21st October, followed by a brief run at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 2nd-4th November.

Review: Tom Molineaux at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

Tom Molineaux is an extraordinary true story about boxing, gambling and friendship. About a man who fights his way to freedom, but remains trapped in the injustices of society. A boxing ring, two men and some period costumes; nothing more is needed to bring this narrative to life. Tom Green’s compelling writing flows fluidly in an extremely believable manner, bringing us back to London in the nineteenth century whilst never losing the audience’s attention. Directing with simplicity and beauty, Kate Bannister constructs an extremely pleasurable evening.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs-Hughes

Nathan Medina skilfully plays the part of an African American boxer, born on the plantation in Virginia, with incredible force, leaving spectators astounded. Tom Molineaux is strong, powerful and will not stop until he beats everyone. Before the play begins, Tom is cherished in America for winning his master a great deal of money, which releases him from slavery and wins him freedom. It seems like nothing will bring him down, his determination and ambition to become world champion is too strong. He manages to convince the English champion Tom Cribb, who is retired, to fight him.

However, the play is not only about boxing, it is about so much more. About injustice, prejudice, loyalty and addictions. The story is narrated by another incredibly talented actor, Brandon O’Rourke, who plays Pierce Egan, a sports journalist who befriends Tom when he arrives to London. Pierce allows us to see the honest emotional turmoil which is present under Tom’s muscles and strength. Unfortunately, this is not a happy story. It is a true story. Will the former slave manage to gain his victory and make millions, or will he be crushed to the bottom by society’s injustice and greed?

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs-Hughes

The performance is highly physical. The set is dark and misty. A seriousness in tone is most commonly present, but lighthearted moments are present too. One of my favourite moments is when Tom and Pierce come back drunk from a night out in 19th century London. The atmosphere transports you and allows one to imagine the streets of London back then, thanks to the accurate descriptions. Unfortunately, Tom and Pierce’s friendship is put to the test. Molineaux fights Cribb but the match is flawed, and Pierce knows. Will Pierce decide to lose the money he has bet on Cribb; or will he convey the truth and tell the world that Molineaux is the world’s biggest champion? Will Pierce fight the system or will Molineaux be representative of our unjust post-colonial society?

Courageous, powerful and human, this brilliant play packs a punch in more ways than one.

Tom Molineaux is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd June.

Review: Crime and Punishment at Jack Studio Theatre

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, Arrows & Traps have got in early with their production of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But put aside any off-putting thoughts of epic 600-page novels; this short, sharp adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus cuts straight to the heart of the story and is all over in a gripping hour and a half.

Focusing less on either the crime or the punishment, instead this adaptation gives us a disturbing insight into the mind of a murderer during the days between the two. By the time the play begins, the murder – of an elderly pawnbroker and her sister – has already been committed, and Raskolnikov (Christopher Tester) finds himself drawn into a cat and mouse game of psychological warfare with police inspector Porfiry (Stephen MacNeice), who’s convinced of his guilt. In desperation Raskolnikov turns to Sonia (Christina Baston), a virtuous young woman forced into prostitution to save her family, who offers his only chance of redemption.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Flashbacks give the audience an opportunity to piece together the events that preceded the murder, as well as the crime itself – but also demonstrate the fractured state of mind of the killer, who himself looks back in an attempt to justify his actions. In the present, Raskolnikov explains to Porfiry that he believes some crimes – including this one – are necessary for the greater good. This is the debate at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, and Campbell and Columbus’ adaptation gets straight down to it, mercilessly axeing several additional characters and plotlines, without losing any of the essence of what the story’s all about.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled a brilliant new cast for this production. Stephen MacNeice is an affable Porfiry, a self-confessed “freeform” investigator whose complex relationship with the suspected murderer begins to feel more like that of father and son than detective and criminal. As Sonia, Christina Baston has a physical fragility that contrasts with the spiritual and moral strength that sustain her – before transforming in flashbacks into the hunched, sneering old pawnbroker who’s about to meet a messy end. But this is ultimately Raskolnikov’s story, and Christopher Tester is captivating as the tormented killer. Despite being a violent criminal driven by his own arrogance, he’s also charming, articulate and capable of great kindness… and so like the biblical Lazarus who’s referenced throughout the play, we desperately want to believe he has the potential for salvation.

Anyone who’s seen Arrows & Traps in action before knows that they have a signature style – but they’re also not afraid to take a risk and step into new territory. Crime and Punishment is the company’s 10th production, and in a lot of ways is quite different to anything they’ve done before, with a cast of just three actors and a running time of only 90 minutes. Yet this is also recognisably an Arrows production, not just in its strong acting performances, but in the use of contemporary music, atmospheric lighting (courtesy of Karl Swinyard) and a dreamlike quality, particularly in movement director Will Pinchin’s exquisite slow-motion murder scene. (I never thought I’d be able to describe watching two old ladies get bludgeoned with an axe as beautiful, but there we go.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

So what we really get with this production is a super-concentrated Arrows experience, stripped back to basics but bearing all the hallmarks of a company and director who know exactly what they’re doing. An intense psychological drama, the play has the entire audience holding our breath throughout, and asks some very real, and relevant, questions about the nature of crime and whether there’s actually any such thing as good and evil.

Think you know Crime and Punishment? Think again.

Crime and Punishment is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 25th February.

Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles at Jack Studio Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

The Brockley Jack annual Christmas show is the stuff of Fringe Legend.  It sells out before it even opens, and the reasons for this incredible success are legion. The Brockley Jack is one of the most reputable and iconic venues in London, and it’s run by people who know what they’re doing and care passionately about the space. They pick good scripts, cast talented actors and produce the Christmas show themselves so audiences know it’s a sure thing. Added to this, the Jack does something other than panto – so it’s great marketing for those who are Cinderella-ed out.

This year’s offering is a comedic pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The plot is simple enough: Mr Baskerville has been murdered. People think it’s a huge hell-hound. Holmes goes up there with Watson to solve the mystery. He does. The End. The show is sold out now, so go and read the book, it’s great.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The script owes a lot to plays like The 39 Steps or The Play That Goes Wrong, yet even those examples aren’t original ideas themselves, so this can be forgiven. Hound is a tight-paced physical comedy that has its three actors multi-roling rapidly between scenes, moving scenery and donning different hats, jackets and accents. It breaks the fourth wall constantly as the very conceit of the play is perpetually on the verge of falling apart, and the actors are forced to break character and become “themselves” more than once. Now, whilst I do have an issue with shows that try to do both a crappy play and make that funny (cod-accents and dodgy props), whilst doing a play crappily (falling down sets and scene changes going wrong), I have to admit the grace and tenacity with which this production was helmed completely won me over and had me giggling with glee. The highlight of the show for me was just after the interval when one of the actors gets irate with the audience after reading an interval tweet and forces his co-stars (and us) to go through the first half at triple speed to prove he was capable of a quicker pace. This moment of building chaos really sums up the production for me; it’s self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, it’s modern and humble, but it’s done with such slickness and panache that the audience are happy to be whipped through the same scenes again, like reading a York Notes Study Guide whilst on amphetamines.

Joey Bartram plays the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes – a role made difficult to make your own after so many iconic performances on screen recently (perhaps the 21st century’s Hamlet?), and this production sees Bartram striding about the stage dripping with confidence (sometimes sweat) and a faraway look, whilst whipping his dark locks about him like he’s modelling shampoo. It’s a boho, gin-drenched, Oxbridge kind of a take on the role, and it’s in keeping with the show, but it’s really the character actor side role/suspects where Bartram shines, teeth-gnashing, winking and scowling his way through scenes.

Adam Elliott plays the Doctor Watson role, which really, due to the absence of Holmes for a large section of the production, is promoted to leading man status. Watson is normally a dog of a part, if you pardon the pun, and yet Elliott does it, thankfully, with charisma and charm. Having seen Elliott perform on the Fringe multiple times now, I’m starting to think that there aren’t many things the actor cannot do. He is a great talent, and one that has a bright future ahead of him. He’s eminently watchable, has an almost flawless grasp of comedic timing, and handles the numerous roles he’s awarded with versatility and a sense of child-like glee. 

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes
Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Andrew Fitch completes the trinity with a wide-eyed and energised Sir Henry Baskerville – the next victim of the Hound that Holmes and Watson are trying to keep from becoming pedigree chum. Fitch has a mountain of roles to contend with (even some that have to be performed on the first floor of the building above the theatre), and he manages to distinguish each one clearly and without undue effort, and he more than gives the two heroes a run for their money in terms of acting chops.

Kate Bannister (director), Karl Swinyard (set design) and Michael Edwards (lighting design) deserve all the credit for turning the small acting space of the Jack Studio Theatre into dozens of different locations, flicking instantly between a foggy moor to a dining room to a train carriage to a horse and cart, all with simple props choices, movement direction, action set pieces, moveable scenery and some of the slickest and most inventive lighting operation I have EVER seen on the Fringe circuit, helmed by Stage Manager John Fricker who seriously deserves an Off West End Award by himself just for managing that many sound and lighting cues on a fringe theatre tech desk.

If not already clear, this play is hilariously funny.  The idea is not a new one, nor does it particularly care to strive for anything above an entertaining night out, but it doesn’t have to. It’s an incredibly well-directed, well-performed and well-constructed comedy, that’s firing on all cylinders and never lets up for a second. It’s a work of true skill, made by professionals who know their craft.

Fringe Theatre, at its best, transcends its limitations and is palpably made with love, passion, creativity and care. Kate Bannister and her team have done exactly that. I would say this should transfer somewhere bigger, but then perhaps it might lose some of the charm that makes it so impressive a feat of the face of their restrictions of space and budget. So perhaps I will say that the Jack Studio Theatre deserve and need all the support, investment and love that their community and fanbase can give them, for they really are a jewel in the London Theatre Crown. Edinburgh Festival 2017 Venue Managers, you better get this show booked in whilst you can…

The Hound of the Baskervilles sold-out run at Jack Studio Theatre ends on 8th January.