Frankenstein, a Blackeyed Theatre production at the Greenwich Theatre, directed by Eliot Giuralarocca and adapted by John Ginman.
Confession: I couldn’t remember if I had read this book. I’d definitely read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, if we are lumping Gothic horror together, long before Gary Oldman grew his nails out to savour that role in 1992, and I vaguely remembered the 1994 cinema version of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, starring Kenneth Branagh as the mad doctor and Robert DeNiro as the neck-bolted creation, and, while I grew up in a Trix household, of course I was aware of the magic of FrankenBerry cereal. But what to expect when going to the small but well curated Greenwich Theatre to see a modern production of the classic novel? How to present the all important creature on a stage, interacting with proper humans, without making it look Halloween and silly? Was this going to go all Munsters?
Quite the opposite. Although there are a few laughs here, none come from laughing at the monster, or the production. The ensemble is small, tight, and the cadence of telling the tale from a book soon slips away into a fresh living scenario, for those of us new to the actual story – a series of flashbacks told by the good Doctor that gives his history and rapidly gets us to the money shot we all came for – our look at the creation that is Frankenstein. Oh wait, no, I’ve jokingly done that mistake of thinking Frankenstein is the monster, when we all check ourselves and remember, no, the horrific walking experiment itself has no name; Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster.
Okay, professorish melodramatics over – Victor Frankenstein is both the doctor and the monster, if you want to look at it that way. Here he is played by Ben Warwick, looking a lot like a young Michael York and minutes in, he bursts onto stage and onto the stranded ship that rescues him, in a high strung panic that is really off-putting. The story begins with a British vessel icebound in the Arctic, coming across the frozen, half-mad doctor in pursuit of his renegade creation, and is told as Frankenstein’s cautionary memories of his hubris. Warwick’s initial mania never really slows down as, theatrically, he steps in and out of his imagined past, bringing ship captain Robert Walton (Ashley Sean-Cook) up to speed about why he is there in the tundra. As he narrates, you start to understand that this driven scientist simply has no time for humoring the captain, or us, such is his mission, and soon the performance catches up with the role, and his energy drives the second act.
Frankenstein – and initially each time he is called by name you as an audience member have to quickly reconcile, that’s his family name, stop thinking green-skinned horror trope – is a man on the edge, and even in the pleasant past he recounts he’s barely connecting with the good things and people in his life, namely his charming friend Henry (a fantastic Max Gallagher) and his fellow orphan/potential wife Elisabeth (strongly quiet Lara Cowin). In a whizz of deft choreography and quick set pieces, Victor spares no time or emotion bringing Walton, and us, up to the point of his great success: just a little thing called creating life.
We then get to see the monster himself, and, while at first mostly static, the second act brings the thing we wrongly call Frankenstein fully into the story as a moving, breathing, and as we dangerously find out, feeling character. “He” is, I suppose the term may be, a puppet, but what a creation (of stagecraft, and of Dr F’s). The creature moves via help from three very visible cast members, and it takes all of a few minutes before you forget they are there, in plain view. Voiced by Louis Labovitch, who appeared earlier as a member of the ship’s crew, the monster is his own moaning, angry, introspective to the extreme, self. Remember the Biology class diagrams of humans, cut open to show all striated muscles, tendons and sockets? This is the design of this horrific thing; as imagined and built by Yvonne Stone (Warhorse, His Dark Materials) he looks almost made of rope, in harmony with the unchanging ship set. His hairless skull looks like it came from another source, but all conspires through genius maneuvering and acting to add an antagonist that you cannot doubt. The monster is very upset with Dr. Frankenstein, and our foolish hero (villain?) takes far too long to deal with what he has unleashed.
Sound and sets
This production is a brilliant example of making use of every bit of talent on the stage. There is no proper music – the sound design comes from onstage percussion and sound effects done by the cast, right in front of you, stepping up to drums to the side of the stage or retasking props that were minutes ago part of the scene. Each actor, bar Warwick, plays multiple parts. It is not a perfect show – the storytelling from Victor, and/or the direction lets us down in the speed in which some of the big plot points are played out. Some important things happen too quickly for us watching and invested to properly digest, and the multipurpose ship cum laboratory set is not the most utilitarian or attractive. Also, I wasn’t sure we were supposed to be seeing some of the just-off stage transitions, they seemed a bit sloppy. But the cast of five exude intelligence, commitment and grace, whether nimbly navigating the set, collapsing into each other’s arms, switching roles or, especially in the case of Warwick, throwing his all into an ultimately unadmirable lead character.
What you get from seeing this as a theatrical experience is far from a horror movie, but gives a bit of a chill nonetheless. The horror here is ethical and philosophical; it is humanity’s ability to be inhumane, or to realise what it is to be human, that is the scare. The monster as he is called, states his needs as simply, clearly and forcefully as few people you have ever met would or could do. I want to love, he says to Victor Frankenstein. I want to be loved. You created me, you made me feel, so give me someone with whom to connect.
Worst Tinder profile ever, but the guy has a point. There are 101 issues at play here – love, scientific ethics, obsession, humanity, Scotland – and the play seems a bit too rushed to give them all air. Suggestion: see this production, on tour in the UK, and let’s all read (reread?) the novel, too.
photo credits: Alex Harvey Brown
Frankenstein Tour Dates
Feb 13-15, Malvern Theatres, Malvern
Feb 17-18, Lichfield Garrick, Lichfield
Feb 21, Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Feb 22, EM Forster Theatre, Tonbridge
Feb 23, Cornerstone, Didcot
Feb 24, Sandpit Theatre, St Albans
Feb 27-28 Auden Theatre, Holt
Mar 1, Key Theatre, Peterborough
Mar 2, Palace Theatre, Newark
Mar 3-4 Carriageworks, Leeds
Mar 7-9, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
Mar 10, The Broadway, Barking
Mar 11, Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury
Mar 14-15, Town Hall, Loughborough
Mar 16, Grand Theatre, Lancaster
Mar 18, Town Hall, Bishop Aukland
Mar 21-22, Lighthouse, Poole
Mar 25, The Regal Theatre, Tenbury Wells