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: The Sound of Music at the Orchard Theatre

If the measure of a good show is how many people burst into song as they leave the theatre, The Sound of Music is surely well up there. Based on the true story of the Von Trapp family, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is undoubtedly a classic, featuring a host of much-loved songs, a heartwarming love story, some unexpected Nazis and the world’s nicest children. What’s not to love?

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Set in 1930s Austria, The Sound of Music tells the story of Maria, a young woman struggling to adapt to the restrictive life of a nun, who’s sent away to live with the Von Trapp family as a governess. Charmed by the seven musically talented Von Trapp children, it’s not long before she starts to fall for their father too. All seems to be turning out well, until the Nazis turn up and try to ruin everything (as Nazis do).

Bill Kenwright’s revival stars Lucy O’Byrne, who gives a pitch perfect performance in just about every way. Maria is a role that requires a lot more vocally than just do-re-mi, and O’Byrne wastes no time in showing off the incredible range that took her all the way to the final of TV’s The Voice, along with the irresistible joie de vivre that instantly wins over both Von Trapps and audience alike.

But it’s not just the star of the show who hits the mark vocally. Rebecca Caine comes close to outshining the rest of the cast, as she brings down the curtain on both acts with her stunning rendition of Climb Every Mountain. Former Corrie star Andrew Lancel produces a charming Edelweiss, and the Von Trapp children repeatedly melt our hearts with their polished performance and beautiful harmonies.

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Gary McCann’s set is one of the most impressive I’ve seen at the Orchard. The story takes us back and forth more than once between Nonnberg Abbey and the Von Trapp house, with occasional trips to other locations – and the set follows suit, without ever missing a beat or compromising on either scale or detail. And these frequent set changes happen so smoothly that the audience, absorbed in the story and music, barely notices them.

Nazis aside, The Sound of Music is very much a feel-good show; it’s difficult not to walk out feeling a little bit better about life (and, let’s be honest, even the Nazis aren’t that scary, really). It’s a love story first and foremost, but there are some other themes in there too, like growing up, finding your passion in life and standing up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone else says. Also, singing is good. As are hills.

For lifelong fans of The Sound of Music, this revival is a fitting tribute. For first timers or – dare I say it – sceptics, it may just win you over. Either way, it’s a production not to be missed.

The Sound of Music is at the Orchard Theatre until 1st October.

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.

Review: Anna Karenina at Jack Studio Theatre

If, like me, you’ve often thought about reading Tolstoy but been put off just by looking at the list of characters, let alone the number of pages, help is at hand. In their first non-Shakespeare production, Arrows & Traps have pulled off the astonishing achievement of compressing a 1,000-page novel into a little under three hours, with a cast of just eight, whilst still remaining faithful to the plot.

Anna, the respected wife of provincial governor Karenin (Adam Elliott), abandons her duty and reputation when she’s swept into a passionate affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Will Mytum). Meanwhile landowner Levin has money and power, and the freedom to do anything he likes, but is desperately in love with Kitty (Pippa Caddick), the woman he believes will give his life purpose. Anna and Levin’s lives fit together to make a whole, with each possessing what the other longs for, and Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, directed by Ross McGregor, highlights this synergy beautifully. The stories unfold in parallel, and though Anna and Levin have never met, from the outset each becomes the voice of reason for the other, the one they confide in and from whom they seek help and comfort. Their dialogue also serves a second, more practical purpose, filling in the gaps with regard to setting and context, so that each time one asks the other, ‘Where are you now?’ it’s as much for our benefit as theirs.

Anna Karenina

As a result, the production needs little in the way of set or props, and the story is carried almost wholly by the fantastic cast. Most of them take on multiple roles, but keep them perfectly distinct, so we always know who we’re looking at, and even the comparatively minor roles are memorable (I particularly enjoyed Hannah Wilder’s giggling, superficial Princess Betsy). The two leads, Ellie Jacob and David Paisley, each capture to perfection the essence of their character: Anna’s charm and quick wit, which enchant everyone she meets, have a similar effect on the audience, while Levin wins our sympathy as a good, honest man radiating quiet desperation at the lack of direction in his life.

A third plot thread involves Anna’s adulterous brother Stiva (Spencer Lee Osborne) and his long-suffering wife Dolly, who’s played by Cornelia Baumann in a truly heartbreaking performance. Of all the stories, Dolly’s is perhaps the most devastating, as she lets Anna convince her to remain in her unfaithful marriage, and consequently ends up feeling she’s never really lived at all.

What’s particularly impressive about Arrows & Traps’ production is the way it somehow manages to be both intimate and epic, getting right to the heart of the characters but also capturing the scale of the novel. There are a few moments – the ballroom, the races, and in particular Anna and Vronsky in the snow – that feel almost cinematic, which is quite an achievement on such a tiny little stage.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina has a bit of everything – romance, tragedy (by the way, the death scenes are brilliantly done, and in one case almost a bit too convincing), drama, social commentary, and even a few moments of comedy to lighten the mood. With 1,000 pages of text to condense down, it’s no surprise that this is an intense and gripping production – but one that I’d happily go and see again tomorrow.

It’s even made me consider reading the novel. Well, maybe…

Review: Jane Eyre at the National Theatre

(Disclaimer: this review was written based on the first preview earlier this month.)

How do you begin adapting a story as epic as Jane Eyre? By making it even more epic, obviously. Charlotte Brontë’s classic and much-loved novel already covers about twenty years in total, beginning when its heroine is 10 years old – but Sally Cookson’s production at the National Theatre goes one better, taking us all the way back to the start of the story. 

The opening scene reveals baby Jane’s tragic origins, as she loses first her parents and then her uncle, ultimately ending up the unhappy charge of her aunt Reed at Gateshead. And it’s here that we pick up the familiar story: a passionate and independent young girl, rejected and mistreated by almost everyone who should care for her, until she finally finds love with Mr Rochester, her brooding and brilliantly sarcastic employer. (Did I mention that Mr Rochester is one of my favourite literary leading men?) But all is not as it seems at Thornfield, and when a shocking secret is revealed, it seems Jane will once again be denied her happy ending. The story is part romance, part thriller, and full of twists and turns that keep you guessing right to the end.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre
Maggie Tagney, Felix Hayes, Laura Elphinstone, Madeleine Worrall, Simone Saunders and Craig Edwards. Credit: Manuel Harlan

This adaptation, a co-production with the Bristol Old Vic, is not for the faint-hearted (or weak-bladdered); lasting three and a half hours, it sets out to tell the story in all its detail, and with seemingly limitless energy. The company of incredibly hard-working actors must burn some serious calories, as they walk, run and climb ceaselessly all over Michael Vale’s ladder-strewn set, which resembles a big adventure playground. This constant movement is used particularly effectively in the transitions between scenes, filling in the gaps between the action, whether they last weeks, months or even years.

The play had no script when rehearsals began; it was devised by the company – so it’s no surprise that the small cast work perfectly together. A very physical piece of theatre, it feels at times more like a ballet than a play, the choreography working seamlessly with Benji Bower’s quirky choices of music. (I never would have thought a Gnarls Barkley song would work in a Victorian classic, which just goes to show what I know.) Singer Melanie Marshall stands out a mile in her glamorous red ball gown, an intense but eerily calm Bertha Mason who can wreak havoc with a single glance.

Felix Hayes (Rochester) and Madeleine Worrall (Jane). Credit: Manuel Harlan
Felix Hayes (Rochester) and Madeleine Worrall (Jane). Credit: Manuel Harlan

Felix Hayes’ Mr Rochester is a bit less elegant and a bit more foul-mouthed than we’re used to, but with an appealing, childlike vulnerability underneath his bushy beard. And Craig Edwards offers some much-needed light relief as a delightfully convincing Pilot the dog; any time he’s on stage the mood in the auditorium palpably lifts, and it’s hard not to watch him as he bounds around the stage. But undoubtedly the star of the show is Madeleine Worrall; she has all the impetuous passion of Jane as a child (so much so that you forget she’s a grown woman), but also the quiet, restrained emotion of the adult. Some of her best moments are when she says nothing at all, but lets her incredibly expressive face and movement do all the talking.

Jane Eyre, National Theatre
Madeleine Worrall (Jane)

While there’s no doubt that this is a beautiful and very artistic production, it does occasionally feel that with so much time devoted to Jane’s inner monologue (other cast members providing the conflicting voices in her mind) and the passing of time, some of the most significant events are dealt with incredibly briefly – to the point where, if you didn’t know the story, you might wonder what had just happened. (Certainly the people behind us found it necessary to spend a frustrating amount of time discussing the plot in loud whispers.) So, if you haven’t read the book, it might be worth at least Googling the story before you go, to prevent confusion (for you) and irritation (for other people).

This new production is highly original, and not at all what I expected from an adaptation of one of my favourite novels – but that’s what makes it exciting. Without the distraction of spectacular sets or special effects, it becomes a psychological study of one woman’s personal journey, in which every other character and event feels secondary to that purpose. The play may move at a gentle pace, but it’s certainly never boring, as it breathes new life into both the classic story and its inspirational central character.