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.

Review: Guys and Dolls at Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange Company develops its ongoing collaboration with all-black theatre company Talawa for this, their latest offering, the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

With a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, we are well and truly in the golden age of Broadway musicals. In other words, an age when musicals were perhaps a little more fanciful and comedic than some of today’s through-sung rock opera musicals are. This one is no exception, and traditionally set in Times Square, it is a mickey take of persons perhaps real or imagined that peopled that neighbourhood at that time, based on the Damon Runyon stories of 1930s New York.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen Guys and Dolls before, then the story follows two would-be couples. Two of the area’s most notorious gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, finally get hitched (to Adelaide and Sarah respectively). It is a comedy love story set in this Noir-esque underbelly of NYC.

This version saw the action shift to Harlem, New York’s black neighbourhood, and the directing (Michael Buffong) and feel of the show was much more real and much darker than I have ever seen it before. It suited the cast, as they played their characters with much more truth and realism than the normal mono-dimensional musical theatre caricatures, and the interpretations of some of the leads was totally different from any other time I have seen this show.

Musically too, the orchestra (led by Mark Aspinall) was given leeway to jazz-up many of the songs, giving them much more authenticity in the new setting of the show.

Overall this idea worked and worked well, but it was flawed. I didn’t like the new song that Adelaide sung in the night club in act one – I had never heard that in a theatre performance before, and only realised later that it came from the film; and her very serious and heart-wrenching rendition of her lament was pitched wrongly, finding no comedy in there at all, and with absolutely no hint of her actually having a cold either before it or during it.

There were several other things too which didn’t quite sit right with me, but I’ll just put those down to personal choice, and leave it at that.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

If you have never seen the show before, then you will absolutely love this re-working, and not have anything with which to compare it. Myself, I had mixed reactions to it, but overall did enjoy it immensely, especially Kenrick Sandy’s choreography to Luck Be A Lady and the showstopper Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.

Ray Fearon is a very likeable Nathan Detroit, and he plays his role with charm and ease, whilst the object of his desires, Adelaide, played here by Lucy Vandi, to whom he has been engaged for 12 years, is given a completely new make-over and the strong, sassy side of this new characterisation really did not work at all. Couple number two came in the form of a more nervous and less confident Sky Masterson than I have previously seen, but this suited actor Ashley Zhangazha well, and was the perfect foil for the more tight-lipped and upright Sarah Brown, played wonderfully by Abiona Omonua.

It is clear that this is a musical however, and so vocally one would expect it to be superb. Sadly it wasn’t. Undeniably all the cast could sing but it felt weak in places and the voices seemed much more at home with the bluesy, jazzy, crooning style, instead of Broadway musical numbers. They were also drowned out too a couple of times by the orchestrations.

Happily, my favourite song in the show was sung superbly and so a special mention should be given to Trevor Toussaint, who plays the often understated part of Abernathy excellently.

Guys and Dolls is not perhaps the sure-fire hit that the Royal Exchange were hoping for, but an all black version, as far as I can tell, is a UK first, and it certainly makes it a most interesting and unusual show. There is certainly much to like and enjoy within it, and the cast play it for all its worth with truth and sincerity, which reaps dividends, but running at 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) it is a little too long.

Guys and Dolls is at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 27th January.