Review: Frankenstein at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this production with some if it promising “on-stage depictions of murder gore and dismembered body parts”, and in a recent interview, director Matthew Xia openly stated that he wanted to present “a nightmarish, fractious dream state … and scare the audience”. Over a longish two and half hours what emerges is less of a horror show and more a faithful realisation of the Gothic and Romantic elements of Shelly’s novel, first published 200 years ago when the author was just nineteen. Although the production does contain some fleeting moments of shock horror, they are for the most part muted and lack any real power and intensity to have a disturbing or unnerving effect.

As with the novel, April De Angelis’ new adaptation starts with a naval officer, Captain Walton, recounting the story in the form of letters written to his sister, whilst he and his crew are trapped in a mountain of ice near the North Pole. De Angelis’ intelligent adaptation cleverly combines the novel’s epistolary form with multi layered flashbacks which act as a perfect framing device for the production.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Discovered wandering out of his mind in the frozen wilderness, Victor Frankenstein is rescued by Walton and with no one on board that he can confide in, he sees the disturbed young doctor as someone he can befriend. Walton cajoles Frankenstein into telling his story and for the most part he watches silently in horror as the Doctor relates how from an early obsession with death he succeeded in creating and bringing to life a monstrous being. This monster it transpires is responsible for the death of those that Frankenstein has loved and held dear in his life, including his best friend, wife and younger brother.

Essential to any successful production of Frankenstein – and there have been a few notable ones in recent years, memorably Danny Boyle’s 2015 production at the National Theatre – is the casting of the two lead roles. Victor Frankenstein is a role that cries out for an actor that can bring to it bags of charisma and energy but Shane Zaza, a highly experienced and respected stage actor, sadly fails to convince in the role, looks uncomfortable and gives a one note performance that is mannered and limited in both dramatic and vocal range.

As the monster, Harry Attwell fares much better and the over long first half only bursts into life when he appears. Although I am sure the look of the monster has been thoroughly researched and designed to be true to the spirit of the novel, unfortunately a badly fitting wig/head piece and billowing costume makes Attwell’s monster look more like an absurd cross between the veteran actor and comedian Max Wall and the beast in Disney’s classic animated fairy tale. Despite this however, Attwell gives undoubtedly the finest performance of the evening and in denouncing Frankenstein and his manipulation of science and the natural order, he voices both 19th and 21st century concerns about wealth, poverty, injustice and the plight of the downtrodden. Although guilty of many heinous acts against Frankenstein and his family, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy and a degree of empathy for Attwell’s monster.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Led by Ryan Gage’s excellent and assiduous Captain Walton, a hard working cast play multiple roles as the story of Frankenstein’s adventures slowly unfold and are played out in a number of settings including Geneva, the remote Scottish Isles and much to the amusement of the first night audience, Derby. It is difficult to pin point why this production does not work in the way that Xia and the surrounding hype had intended. Although the Royal Exchange employs the full range of special effects in its armoury, including real rain water and pyrotechnics, the overall feeling is of a somewhat subdued, lacklustre production that looks great but contains little tension to drive the drama forward.

There is however still much to enjoy in this production, especially Ben Stones’ sparse but effective and innovative set, Mark Melville’s pulsating and thrilling sound design and Johanna Town’s stark and atmospheric lighting – but for genuine theatrical shocks and thrills, a visit to see Susan Hill’s masterly The Woman In Black either in the West End or on tour is recommended instead.

Frankenstein is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 14th April.

Interview: David Fairs and Anna Marsland, Tomorrow Creeps

GOLEM! is a Shakespeare theatre company with a difference. Last year their second production I Know You Of Old took the text of Much Ado About Nothing and rearranged it into a new story; the year before that, they brought us Macbeths, a unique take on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy from the sole perspective of the two central characters.

Now GOLEM! return with a new and even more ambitious project, Tomorrow Creeps. The play combines raw material from 16 Shakespeare plays and sonnets, and also takes inspiration from the music of Kate Bush, among a multitude of other influences.

“This is completely invented, new narrative, so it’s not going to reflect in any way a particular Shakespeare play like the previous two have,” explains director Anna Marsland. “It’s an exciting piece of work in terms of what adaptation can be; I think we’re doing something quite bold formally. Also if you want something that is hopefully a little bit chilling, a little bit exciting and immerses you in something that’s a bit dark and scary, this will be your cup of tea.”

The play, which features three characters – the Fallen Tyrant, the Spectral Queen and the Hollow Hero – will be performed in the Cavern space at this year’s VAULT Festival from 24th to 28th January. “This is a new venture for us, being part of the VAULT festival,” says Anna. “It’s such a great environment because it feels like a mini Edinburgh underground, and we’re excited about making something that’s part of that artistic community. And also it’s a space for us to try something bolder and more experimental, and take this idea of re-orchestration even further.”

“And that was very exciting in terms of creating the script, knowing that that was the environment we’re working in,” adds writer David Fairs, who also plays the Fallen Tyrant. “There was that brilliant liberation knowing that the whole thing would be taking place in this really huge, cavernous long structure. It gave so much free rein in terms of how we were playing the physical journey of the character, and also it allows the audience to have a very experiential time while they’re following this narrative.”

The production features a soundscape designed by Odinn Hilmarsson, which draws on the aesthetic of the Vaults: “We’re going to use that creepy underground space to our advantage,” says Anna. “In fact David kind of formed the idea of the plot based on the idea that we could set this in an underground prison cell, so the Vaults were very much in mind.

“One thing about those Vaults spaces is that I think you have to embrace the sound quality in there – you’ve got the rumbling trains, a bit of water dripping from the roof, a slight echo. That’s part of the atmosphere and you can’t ignore it, so Odinn is creating something that’s pretty much durational for the whole piece, that adds to, enhances, and allows space for the sound of the Vaults itself, in order to create this world which is inhabited by supernatural forces and ultimately transformed in ways through sounds.”

David describes his writing process for this play as “similar but more expansive” than previously. “With I Know You Of Old, though it was based on the one play and the basic plot elements was taken from Much Ado, there was still that sense that what I wanted to do was create my own narrative within that, then work with the parts of the original play to do that. This one just took that and extended it to a new level – so I mapped out and knew what I wanted the plot, characters and journey to be. There was a lot of reading and delving back into the plays, re-familiarising myself with sections, then it was really just a very organic process, pulling things out of the texts and transferring that on to the page as a draft of the script.”

Though much of the writing is a solitary process, he points out that this time he wasn’t quite alone: “While I was writing I was listening to a huge amount of Kate Bush, who was both an influence and a really key part of the actual development of the script. I think she’s a brilliant lyrical and musical storyteller – so more than as a musician, I was looking at her as a writer, almost. Somebody like Shakespeare who creates brilliant expressions and stories, like Wuthering Heights, which is her creative response to this brilliant source novel. I was interested in how elements of that storytelling could form part of a narrative. The use of her as an idea, and her music and the way that she tells her stories, that very much weaves through this play along with the Shakespeare text.”

The production also draws on a wide range of other influences: “There’s the horror aspect, the supernatural elements including spirits and possession – so we’ve been looking at sources like American Horror Story, The Exorcist, Hammer Horror, Silence of the Lambs – which is a springboard for the relationship between the Hollow Hero and the Fallen Tyrant,” explains Anna. “And also beyond that, aliens have been an influence and as with other work that we’ve made, David Lynch, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive. So lots of filmic references that we’ve been drawing on.”

When asked to expand on their respect for David Lynch, both David and Anna are full of enthusiasm. “Some people watch David Lynch films and don’t understand what’s happening, so you either find that really intriguing and you go with how it makes you feel and respond, or some people find it distancing,” says Anna. “I feel like the thing that interests me about Lynch is the character; there’s a truth in that character but there’s also a heightened world, and just clever surreal details that he merges with realism, that feels very exciting to watch.”

And all the details, characters and dialogue form something that does make absolute sense for you, but you get almost what you’re willing to give it,” continues David. “You have to be there and ready to experience each of these things, because his narratives often are very present, and you have to piece together the wider everything from those immediate experiences that are coloured with so much detail and so much imagination. It’s not about intellectually gathering it and understanding in that way; you just sit with it, experience it and it builds, and you feel that narrative.”

Although it’s inspired by Shakespeare, the play is “so far stretched” from the original texts on which it draws that it can be enjoyed equally by those who know Shakespeare and those who don’t. “This is very much a new play, you can come in and watch this, and you have no idea about any Shakespeare narratives or characters and it really doesn’t matter,” explains David. “If you do have it, you’ll enjoy different aspects perhaps, but that’s certainly not our intention by any means. These are three new characters, a new story, a new environment and you really need no prior knowledge at all to enjoy it.”

Catch Tomorrow Creeps at the VAULT Festival from 24th-28th January.

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.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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…


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉