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: One Was Nude and One Wore Tails at the Hen and Chickens

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Review: Four Thieves Vinegar at Barons Court Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Four Thieves Vinegar is a new play by Christine Foster, directed by Adam Bambrough for The 42nd Theatre Company at Barons Court Theatre. At times with the Fringe Theatre industry, grand ideas take place in tiny cramped arenas, but here we have a perfect unison of play and venue in that the subterranean vault-like gloom of the Baron’s Court Theatre is transformed into a 17th century prison cell and this genius venue choice complements the aesthetic of the tale perfectly. The most striking element of this production is its design. Sally Hardcastle and Will Alder deserve the highest of praise for their work on this production, as they have elevated it to something worthy of the West End. The lighting, props, costume and set decoration are simply flawless, creating a perfect, captivating world in which the actors can play in. From tiny details of amber window effects, to the dirt underneath the actors’ fingernails, it’s all done with an attention to detail that is staggering.

The plot revolves around three inmates of Newgate prison and their kindly jailer, in the time of the Black Death. The possibility of a cure is understandably on everyone’s minds, and fearful superstition of God’s wrath is heavy in the air, thicker than vinegar fumes and hot brick ash. Matthias Richards, played with grace and sincerity by Nick Howard-Brown, is an impoverished alchemist trying to cure the plague before time runs out. Kate Huntsman is a fiery ball of energy and pathos as Jennet Flyte, Richards’ romantic interest, an innocent young maid who is awaiting the noose once her baby is delivered. Hannah Jeakes is the third prisoner – a world-weary nurse, played with gravel-voiced anarchic glee by Pip Henderson. Simon Holt is their keeper, with Bruce Kitchener as the slow plodding but well-meaning jailer, the lesser of the four roles but one he absolutely nails the timing for, and gets the most laughs out of an understandably grim subject matter.

The plot is packed full of different strands, but without spoiling anything too badly, no one is quite who they say they are, and as the play goes on, and the Black Death closes in around them, each character must make their peace with their own personal inconvenient truth.

This production has the makings of something truly outstanding, but unfortunately the ratio of gold to liquid in the alchemy of the show’s different elements is off, and as it stands, they are failing to fully dissolve together. The biggest culprit is unfortunately the writing. There are simply too many storylines for a 90-minute play, and it’s down to the director and writer to now work out which to keep and which to cut, if the show is to have a future revival. The plague plot is present throughout but it’s often side-lined by bickering and innuendo that tire after a while. Huntsman and Howard-Brown have the most to do in terms of characterisation and arcs, and they’re the glue that hold the production together. Huntsman is perhaps the most watchable and fully-formed in terms of her performance, claiming the stage like a little tear-stained imp, whilst giving a clear intention with every single line she’s given, whilst Howard-Brown gives his best Hamlet The Science Nerd, injecting much-needed wide-eyed mania bordering deliciously on obsession. You’re never quite sure if Richards is telling the truth about claiming to have discovered a cure, and Howard-Brown plays this with mastery and a delicate toying with the text. Kitchener has a paternal heaviness that is kindly, genial and reassuring – a lighter moment in amongst the darkness, and much needed.

Four Thieves Vinegar is an interesting idea, that could do with being longer, slower, and more precise in its plotting and pacing. The director needs to be clearer about the placing of the different narrative elements, and the cast need a script that matches their abilities, and one that isn’t so overwritten. And somebody at the Almeida needs to hire the show’s designers immediately.

Four Thieves Vinegar is at Barons Court Theatre until 26th March.

Interview: Ross McGregor, Crime and Punishment

Next month, the Brockley Jack Studio will play host once again to Offie-nominated Arrows and Traps for their tenth production. Following the company’s critically acclaimed Anna Karenina in 2016, director Ross McGregor is taking on another Russian classic in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus.

Crime and Punishment is the story of Raskolnikov, a young law student who commits a double murder, and the effect that this act has on him,” explains Ross. “But it’s also the story of the police detective trying to catch him, and the woman trying to save him. It’s very psychological, and in modern terms comes across as a crime thriller. What makes it different is that we see almost everything from the perspective of the murderer, as opposed to the policeman. So a nice inversion on the Agatha Christie formula. It’s not really a whodunnit’, but a ‘willhegetawaywithit’.

“To sum up, it’s an engrossing psychological journey into the mind of a killer, adapted from a book that you’ve heard of but never read, thus enabling you to sound clever afterwards with your friends whilst still being done and dusted by 9:15pm.”

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The fact that the Arrows’ first show of 2017 is based on a Russian novel isn’t a coincidence: “This year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, so Russian literature and drama is going to be big this year. We thought we’d get in early before you’re all drowning in Sisters, Seagulls and Orchards. I had such immense joy doing another Russian adaptation last year, with our Anna Karenina, and this is very much in a similar style, to suit the space and aid with telling a massive story in a short space of time.

“There’s something wonderfully captivating about Russian literature. It’s so passionate and tense, everyone’s got these huge sweeping emotions, men fight duels and go to war rather than apologise, it’s all hubris and unrequited loves, and illicit passions, outbreaks of sudden war, and wounded egos, and lost fortunes, it all makes for wonderful drama. You open a Russian novel, and you can almost immediately taste the snowflakes and vodka.”

Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ award-winning adaptation condenses Dostoyevsky’s 600-page novel into a 90-minute three-hander. “This adaptation is impeccably strong, and was very striking back at the first read, so that’s really why I wanted to do it,” says Ross. “It’s an incredible take on an iconic piece of literature. It’s won various new writing awards in New York, and been performed all over the world. With so many play adaptations of famous novels – and I’ve read a lot – they try to cram the novel into a play format, writing countless little quick scenes that do little more than capture the plot, but rarely the nuance of the authorial voice or even the characters themselves. This adaptation, similar to the Anna Karenina we did last year, takes the novel as a starting point but constructs something new that is inherently theatrical. It uses devices that wouldn’t work in a novel, and stands on its own two feet. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy this. In fact, it manages to capture the main character Raskolnikov, at times, dare I say it, better than Dostoyevsky did.”

This production has plenty to look forward to for the Arrows’ devoted fanbase – and it also has a few surprises in store: “It’s an entirely new cast, primarily,” reveals Ross. “They’re all stunning additions to the Arrows team. I still adore the established Arrows team, they feel like my family, but I thought it was important to keep things fresh – and particularly since last year was so busy for our core members, it’s good to change things up from time to time.

“Returning audience members will be greeted with some familiar touches, however. It’s still an Arrows show, so I like to include some Easter eggs for the fans of previous productions. Ten shows in, and I think we have a certain in-house style when it comes to theatre, that will still be there, of course.”

Working with a cast that’s not only much smaller than on previous productions, but also entirely new, presents Ross with an exciting challenge – but it’s not without its risks. “It’s incredibly scary. And exciting. I think those are very symbiotic sensations,” he admits. “After the rep season at the end of last year, I felt I’d painted myself into a bit of an artistic corner. We’d done two massive Shakespeare shows (Othello and Twelfth Night) in rep with the same cast on alternate nights and received a lot of critical success for the project, and so for me the answer to ‘What next?’ didn’t come easily.

“In some ways, we’d grown too big, or were in danger of being ‘that company known for the spectacle Shakespeares’. Which is lovely, and fine, but I realised that I had to change tack quickly if I was going to keep things interesting for audiences and for myself. I had to step away from my Shakespeare comfort blanket, I had to strip away all the history and artifice and just have three actors in a room with a table for 90 minutes – and see if I could still make it interesting, could I still make the old Arrows magic without all my usual tricks. I wanted to get back to a theatre that was more raw, more honest.

“So what a challenge it’s going to be. It’s one of the most famous books of all time. It’s a massive story. The adaptation is blisteringly unforgiving on its performers. As an actor there’s nowhere to hide. As a director there’s no safety net. This is our tenth production in three years, and I think it’s going to be the hardest one yet. I’m honoured to be a part of it.”

Book now for Crime and Punishment at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 7th-25th February.