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.

Review: The State of Things at Jack Studio Theatre

My theatregoing habit began, more years ago than I like to admit, with a love of musicals – and even now if you put a gun to my head and made me choose a favourite type of theatre, they’d probably still come out on top. So it’s no great surprise that the words “a new musical” always give me a little bit of a thrill – especially when said new musical is coming from The AC Group, whose previous productions have earned widespread acclaim.

So, did The State of Things live up to expectations? Absolutely. It’s got everything – catchy songs, talented actor-musicians, and a story that’s easily relatable for anyone who’s ever felt frustrated by politics (or indeed ever been a teenager).

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Written by Thomas Attwood and Elliot Clay, The State of Things is about seven friends who discover the A Level Music class they were all planning to take next year is being axed because of lack of funds. Unable to convince their headteacher (“Maggie”) to reinstate the course, they decide to take matters into their own hands and raise the issue with their local MP. But unfortunately they’re teenagers, so not only is their political experience and knowledge a bit sketchy, but other things keep getting in the way, like exam revision, raging hormones and, in one case, a serious family situation.

Ultimately, though, it all circles back to politics, and that’s the core of the story: the frustration of young people who have the necessary understanding but zero power to influence decisions about the future they’ll have to live with. While some of the friends know little about politics (“I looked it up, the Tories are the ones in power”), others are surprisingly knowledgable and passionate about issues affecting not just their school but the local area as a whole. If anything at times they’re a bit too eloquent to be believable – but the show has a point to make, and in the absence of any grownups on stage, it has to fall to the teenagers, however unlikely this might feel.

As if to balance this out, the exceptional cast of actor-musicians bring their teenage characters to well-rounded life, with all the confusion and embarrassment that’s a painful but inevitable part of growing up. There’s a lot of humour, particularly in their various romantic fumblings – Jaz (Rosa Lukacs) gets jealous when boyfriend Beefy (Toby Lee) talks to his French teacher; Adam (Elliot Clay) can barely bring himself to say a word to his crush Ruth (Hana Stewart), and then when he does he says all the wrong things. Class clown Will (James William-Pattison) is secretly totally confused about whether he’s gay or not, while laid back Aussie Sam (Peter Cerlienco) barely notices gender at all. And then there’s Kat (Nell Hardy), the only member of the group who remains single-mindedly focused on their cause – largely because she has nowhere else to go to pursue her passion.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

The score features a nice mix of upbeat toe-tappers and stirring ballads, all apparently written by the young musicians. Perhaps because of this, they all fit very naturally within the flow of the production (directed by writer Thomas Attwood), and fulfil the dual purpose of driving the story forward and showcasing the talent that could be squandered as a result of cancelling the music course.

If you love a good musical and want to be entertained for an evening, I recommend The State of Things. If you’re interested in the uncertain future of arts education, I recommend The State of Things. If you’re a young person frustrated by the decisions made for you by older generations… well, you get the idea. Basically, this is a thoroughly enjoyable new musical from a talented team – but with an important point to make as well. What’s not to love?

The State of Things is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 23rd September.

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…