Review: Frankenstein at the Jack Studio Theatre

It’s quite a feat to breathe new life into one of the world’s most popular and iconic novels – but there’s no doubt Arrows & Traps’ Ross McGregor has succeeded with his adaptation of Frankenstein. Like the novel, it tells both Frankenstein’s and the Creature’s story, but reframes these within a fascinating insight into the life of their creator, Mary Shelley. The result is thrilling, poignant, often surprisingly funny and – unsurprisingly – visually beautiful, and it allows us to consider the themes of the novel in a whole new way.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

In fact, this is much more Mary’s story than it is Frankenstein’s, and the always brilliant Cornelia Baumann leads the cast with a moving portrayal of the troubled writer, now older and suffering with ill health and bad memories. Drawn into a passionate romance with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was still a teenager, despite the disapproval of society and the attempts of her father William Godwin to keep them apart, she went on to face the tragic loss of three of her four children, a near-fatal miscarriage and then the death of her husband in a shipwreck not long afterwards. In light of all this, it makes sense that the adaptation of her novel focuses primarily on the relationship between parent and child, and invites us to question what it is that makes someone a parent in the first place.

A real highlight of the show is seeing Will Pinchin – the Arrows’ Movement Director – take to the stage for the first time as the Creature. Having admired his work in many previous productions, it’s great to see it in the flesh, and his performance proves to be worth the wait. Unlike the classic Hollywood portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster who was “born” evil, this Creature starts out as a gentle soul, a frightened, child-like figure eager to learn and play. It’s the rejection of those he loves that creates the monster, and Pinchin’s cold fury and sharp intellect in the play’s later scenes are far more chilling than any lumbering movie depiction. Christopher Tester’s Frankenstein, meanwhile, undergoes a similar transformation from a likeable, earnest young geek to an obsessive genius, capable of creating life but not appreciating its true worth.

With three interwoven stories, all taking place at different times and in different locations and a lot of historical information to digest, there are occasions when it becomes a little hard to follow; some knowledge of the novel is also probably an advantage to help pinpoint where we are in the chain of events. But the skill of the actors (and a few swift wardrobe changes) ensures that despite some significant multi-roling – particularly from Oliver Brassell, who plays no fewer than four major characters – we can always identify who we’re looking at.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Another bonus is the presence of some strong female characters. Shelley’s novel is dominated by men, but here we have not only Mary herself but also her two sisters Fanny and Claire – as well as Agatha, the young blind woman who teaches the Creature to speak and read. Played by Zoe Dales, she’s enjoyably feisty and sarcastic, but also a rare source of compassion in a world that’s far too quick to reject them both just because they’re different.

As in all Arrows productions, there’s also a lot going on visually – from Odin Corie’s steampunk-inspired costumes to Ben Jacobs’ lighting design, which combined with sound from Alistair Lax creates some striking moments. Most impressive is the sequence in which the Creature first comes to life; it never fails to amaze how this company can create such drama on such a small stage.

Frankenstein is the first Arrows show written by artistic director Ross McGregor, who must be feeling a certain sympathy for Mary Shelley seeing his baby come to life on stage every night. But I don’t think this ingenious creation will be turning on its parent any time soon.

Frankenstein is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 21st October, then the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 2nd-4th November.

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: 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.