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: Ashley Winter and Christopher Montague, Skin Deep

Attila Theatre’s Skin Deep was first performed last year at the London Horror Festival, where the festival’s patron Nicholas Vince commented, “This is physical ensemble theatre in its purest form and will haunt me for days.” This week, Attila bring their gruesome true story to the Camden Fringe, opening tonight at the Lion and Unicorn.

Skin Deep is the origin story of real-life historical figure Erzsébet Báthory – branded the world’s most prolific female serial killer,” says Ashley Winter, who plays her. “We explore her childhood, marriage to soldier Ferenc Nadasdy, and the events that led to her very first murder. It’s also a love story between Erzsebet and her handmaid Lucie.”

The show is an obvious must for horror fans, “but also fans of ensemble theatre, feminist theatre, physical theatre…” says Ashley.

“All the above, but especially female theatre makers,” agrees director Christopher Montague. “We may have stumbled upon an iconic female character from history, so underrepresented and interesting that people will want to explore her life for years to come. Ashley plays her brilliantly, and it is a very desireable role in my eyes; hopefully in twenty years’ time we’ll be talking about the character Báthory in the same way we talk about Richard III.

“We’ve slapped a 14+ recommendation on the play, purely because of foul language and violent imagery – we don’t want to warp any young minds. That will happen without our input. The play is nowhere near as gruesome as it could’ve been, so even if you’re a bit squeamish, you’ll be fine!”

Ashley’s hoping audiences will come away as obsessed with Báthory as she is: “I think the most interesting thing about her is that her actual real-life existence is so removed from the image of the sexy, vampish killer that pop culture has bestowed upon her. She’s been appropriated by the goth community as this macabre pin-up, but we really have no way of knowing what she was like, what motivated her, what she wanted from life.

“I think it’s important to look at how history represents those in the past; Erzsébet’s name was considered a curse word for 100 years after she died – but her husband Ferenc, ‘The Black Knight’, is still considered to be a national hero in Hungary, despite being known for his horrendous and brutal torture of Turks in the Ottoman war. Gender inequality presents itself in many ways and Erzsébet Báthory – the most famous woman of her time – has not escaped it. We wanted to present an Erzsébet that was a product of the brutal time in which she existed, but try to steer clear of culturally presented clichés about ‘dangerous women’.”

The first version of the show, produced in late 2016 for the London Horror Festival, was developed in just three weeks. Since then it’s changed quite dramatically: “We brought director Ailin Conant on board, whose experience working in physical theatre, mask and puppetry helped us develop the physical language and the multiple ‘worlds’ of the play,” explains Ashley. “We’ve introduced a chorus of maids to the piece too, who are present on stage most of the time; you get to see much more of the immense dichotomy between the rich and poor of the time. Erzsébet’s story has become more about the struggle to break free from societal constraints relating to gender and social status.”

“The show is a little less sensationalist this time around,” adds Christopher. “Last year, performing the show on Halloween weekend and with little time to really explore the story we wanted to tell, we opted for a version of the show that was overall darker, included more torture and more blood. Don’t worry gore-fans, there’s still a fair bit, but in the interests of creating a dramatic story arc, we’ve focused more on the character’s relationships and making them all fully developed, rather than just victims.

“Also, I no longer perform in the show as ‘Percy’ the pigkeeper boy, much to many people’s dismay. It was decided my skills could be used elsewhere.”

So why should people come and see Skin Deep? “Because we worked really hard on it?” suggests Christopher. “Brush away the Edinburgh blues and see some of the amazing work that’s right on your doorstep at the Camden Fringe!”

Ashley expands, “Firstly, it will defy expectations about who Báthory was. We have an amazing female-heavy cast who have incredible energy and passion for the show. The music is totally brilliant – designed by the talented Ross Kernahan – and gives the whole show this creeping tension that builds to a furious ending. It’s surprisingly funny too! It’s a fast-paced physical show with really taut dialogue, so if you’re not into stuffy history plays then it’s definitely for you.”

“I’d love for audiences to see something of a contemporary ‘history’ play,” adds Christopher. “A lot of plays you see that explore historical figures tend to include large monologues and elaborate set design that mirror the time of their life – whereas being an emerging company with training in ensemble theatre, our instincts led us to this stripped back design, which allows us to fully utilise the large cast and their talents. Plays about history don’t have to simply be biopics. We’ve definitely taken liberty with the truth at times, but always in the interest of making a better show. Hopefully audiences will forgive us for that!”

Ashley and Christopher started Attila Theatre after graduating from the University of Reading. “We didn’t start with any aims, other than to start making our own work and see what naturally came out of that,” Ashley explains. “We’ve discovered that we’re interested in telling stories about women in traditionally male realms. We’re very much inspired by companies like Told by an Idiot – irreverent, funny, daring and devised!”

“After making a few shows and having a decent network of friends with theatre companies in London, my main goal is to stay in amongst these people and keep making work,” says Christopher. “Sounds simple, but there’s a huge amount to be said for companies like us being ‘in the same boat’ as all the others who are struggling to get funding, working two jobs alongside rehearsals etc. The knowledge that we’re all still doing it despite the difficulties, for me, is a testament to the artists who make the work and the support they provide each other.”

Skin Deep opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 31st July and runs until 6th August.

Review: The Woman in Black at Fortune Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

A haunted elderly man by the name of Arthur Kipps engages the services of a professional actor in the hopes of receiving tutelage in staging a private reading for his friends and family.

This is not just any performance though, as Kipps needs to exorcise himself of a particularly scarring event that happened to him in his youth. The problem is that Kipps simply does not possess the acting chops to take on the role of his younger self, and so quickly a second plan is hatched between Kipps and the Actor, whereby the Actor will play the role of Young Kipps and Kipps Senior will play all the peripheral characters in the story. It’s a play within a play kind of idea, and once the ball is finally rolling with it, the device is held together and conveyed in a spirited way, if you excuse the pun.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Plot-within-the-plot-wise – the story is a standard fare rather similar to the opening of Dracula. Jonathan Harker – apologies – Arthur Kipps (the younger version of him that is) is sent to a remote and desolate mansion to conduct a menial administrative task. Kipps the Elder chimes in from time to time playing various people Kipps the Younger meets during his stay in the village of Crythin Gifford – the roles mainly yokel exposition. For the most part then, Kipps the Younger is left to his own devices. And what devices they are. For he is not alone in Eel Marsh House. There is a malevolent presence in there with him, and she’s very, very angry…

The star of The Woman in Black is not the two actors in it, nor the Woman herself, but the stage design and soundscape. The set begins as a dusty out-of-action theatre, with wicker hampers and backcloths draped everywhere, but eventually expands to reveal various outdoor elements of the mansion, as well as various internal rooms, most hauntingly – a particular one containing a rocking chair with a life of its own. The sound is immaculately done – one shudders to think how long tech days take this production to get it timed right with each cast change – and all the jumps are in the right places and suitably terrifying.

Because that’s what The Woman In Black relies on – a hefty number of jump scares. Added to this are the gaggles of school groups that flock to every performance, students of Susan Hill’s novel one assumes, who actually serve the production greatly as scream machines. Despite never being one for rustling sweet packets or chatterboxes in a theatre audience, this is one occasion where all the noise around me actually enhanced the production. Although, the actors really should learn to wait until the pubescent giggling and shrieking has stopped before continuing on with their lines, as not a soul can hear them.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

Joseph Chance plays the Actor, and he does it with aplomb, charm and panache. He has a beautifully deep and charismatic voice – perfectly cast as the classic young Olivier style of showman – and whilst his character’s mistake at the opening is one of hubris at his willingness to engage in what will be a harrowing experience for all concerned, he’s convivial and cheeky enough to stir empathy and willingness for the audience to follow him. As Kipps the Younger he’s able to realistically navigate the rusty and clunky plot – pantomime smoke and melodramatic script included – and convincingly convey the arc of a smirking sceptic turned wide-eyed, horror-stricken believer.

Stuart Fox as Kipps the Elder unfortunately suffers from volume issues. Had he been any quieter in his delivery only dogs would have heard him. And I was near the front. Of the stalls. Initially when Kipps is attempting to be an actor and failing, I assumed this was part of the schtick but unfortunately his issues continued for the rest of the production. Perhaps Fox is temporarily suffering from a winter cold. Unfortunately he also has issues with differentiating between the many characters he plays. Had it not been for the different jackets I would have struggled to tell them apart. I was most surprised to read in the programme that he had played the role before two years previously, because as it stands now Fox has substantially far to go before he fully inhabits the role as much as Chance does.

The Woman In Black has been running since 1987, and presumably will continue to do so long after this review has faded into obscurity. It’s akin to Madame Tussauds or the London Dungeon, it’s not so much a play anymore as a tourist attraction. The scares are legion, and the production is tight, but the plot is an old one, the dialogue is dusty as an Eel Marsh armoire and the direction could benefit from a new pair of eyes. But perhaps the producers are of the mind-set of “if it ain’t broke”, and it certainly isn’t. And so the Woman In Black awaits for those brave enough to step into her home…

The Woman in Black is at Fortune Theatre, London – or you can catch the show on tour.

Review: Attack of the Giant Leeches at Etcetera Theatre

When you arrive for a show and get handed a mini water pistol, you know you’re in for an interesting evening. And it turns out that the opportunity to gleefully drench some actors is actually one of the least eccentric things about the Lampoons’ Attack of the Giant Leeches, a comedy horror for the Halloween season, which is very funny, extremely silly and above all quite, quite bonkers.

It’s the 1950s, and something bad is lurking in the Florida Everglades. When a local man claims to have seen a monster in the water, nobody believes him… but then people start disappearing, and game warden Steve Benton vows to track down the culprit. The show is a madcap homage to the 1959 “creature feature” movie of the same name, complete with low-budget props, rampant sexism and some very questionable accents.

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Photo credit: Mark Neal

The Lampoons describe their style as “engaging, eccentric, and visually banterous”. I’m not even sure if banterous is a real word, but it feels appropriate nonetheless. The actors are clearly having just as much fun as the audience, bickering cheerfully amongst themselves and occasionally collapsing with a fit of the giggles. The show also enjoys sending up the style it’s imitating, with scenes of clichéd melodrama, cheesy commercials for household products, out of the blue musical numbers, and – perhaps most memorable – the moment the solitary woman breaks character to launch a furious and long overdue tirade against her patronising male co-stars.

Each of the actors (Christina Baston, Adam Elliott, Josh Harvey, Oliver Malam and Sab Muthusamy) takes on a number of stereotyped roles, among them the country yokel, the henpecked husband, the seductive blonde and – of course – the hero who saves the day, albeit with a lot of help from his considerably more intelligent girlfriend, and an unnecessary amount of time gazing dramatically into the distance. It takes skill and a well-oiled team effort to produce something that seems so completely chaotic, but this cast certainly knows how to deliver – and how to get maximum laughs while they do it.

dscf3543-leech-mon-copy
Photo credit: Mark Neal

A word of caution: this is not a show you just sit and watch – and don’t think just because you avoided the front row that will get you off the hook (I realised this when, in my ‘safe’ second row seat, I suddenly found myself being handed a stick of dynamite made out of a Pringles can, by an expectant-looking man in a rubber dinghy). The cast throw everything into their performance, but they also feed off the audience’s reactions, and without that participation – and in some cases, severe discomfort – the show would probably fall a bit flat, so be prepared to get involved.

Don’t expect serious drama or highbrow acting from Attack of the Giant Leeches (although who would, with a title like that?), but what this show does offer is full-on entertainment with a side helping of complete mayhem. It might not give you nightmares, but it will definitely give you a surreal and hilarious night out… and who can say no to that?

Attack of the Giant Leeches is at Etcetera Theatre until 31st 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.