Reviewed – 18th November 2019
“This production does breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s story with its inventiveness, but it perilously runs the risk of killing it too”
What’s the name of Mary Shelley’s monster? ‘Frankenstein’ is the unanimous response. Wrong! Shelley never ascribed a name to the creature created by Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who meddles with nature. Although in Rona Munro’s stage adaptation the misnomer is given an extra twist as Munro places Shelley herself into the action. It is an interesting framing device that mirrors the story’s concerns: Shelley has created her own monster which, now set unleashed into the world, is beyond her control.
Eilidh Loan, as the young eighteen-year-old writer, is a feral creature herself with a lacerating energy, scratching words onto her pages as the tale unfolds around her. She is the writer, and the director, of her characters as she prompts and taunts, and is never kind to them. But there lies part of the problem – her grating Cockney detachment strips the drama of its sense of tragedy and sadness. You rather miss, too, the presence of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. It seems a shame to ignore the real-life story behind the conception of the dark tale, which is almost as famous as the novel itself. Maybe Munro’s intention was that we, the audience, were the ones cooped up with Mary in the chalet on Lake Geneva. Loan frequently spoke out to the auditorium as though she were being challenged to come up with her own terrifying tale. But lines like “Is it frightening enough?” or “It’s my nightmare” are too simplistic to realise the effect.
Although the stilted characterisation and dialogue dampen the atmosphere, it is more than compensated for in Patricia Benecke’s foreboding staging. Becky Minto’s icy set of balconies and bare trees like withered lungs suggest the dread and despair, punctuated by Simon Slater’s bolts of sound that feed the melodrama. At times, though, the cast are forced to try to outdo the setting with occasional overdramatic delivery. Ben Castle Gibb, as Victor Frankenstein, is the most successful at avoiding this with a manic performance that captures the extremes of obsession without drumming home the point. Michael Moreland’s Monster bizarrely speaks like Kathy Burke’s own monstrous creations; Kevin and Perry, which doesn’t help lift him out of the cartoon like portrayal Munro has written for him, and the other characters.
Sprinklings of feminist anachronisms and modern-day analogies to ethnic intolerance, fear and prejudice border on patronising and melt the glacial force of Shelley’s original. Trying to balance the entertainment value with a subliminal sermon is unnecessary and it dilutes the power. This production does breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s story with its inventiveness, but it perilously runs the risk of killing it too.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Richmond Theatre until 23rd November then UK tour continues
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Other Palace
Reviewed – 9th April 2019
“Mrs Potter’s lemon meringue garnered a round of applause all of its own. As Bake Off’s success testifies, the Brits do love a cake.”
Nigel Slater’s autobiography was published to critical acclaim in 2003, and quickly went on to become a best-seller, further cementing Slater’s place in the nation’s heart. It was adapted into a film, shown on the BBC in 2010 before its cinema release a year later, and The Lowry last year commissioned this stage adaptation, which has landed at The Other Palace after a successful Edinburgh run at the 2018 festival. For those not already familiar with the events of Slater’s childhood – for it is this that Toast takes as its subject – he grew up in 60s suburban England, with a loving mother and a distant father. His mother died of asthma when he was still at school; his father remarried, to a woman who he didn’t like, and died a few years later, finally freeing him up to move to London and pursue the love of food and cooking that had always been with him, from his very earliest years.
The first thing to say about Toast is that it looks gorgeous. Scrumptious even. Good enough to eat. Libby Watson’s production design hits the perfect nostalgic notes, and Zoe Spurr’s ever-excellent lighting design is a superb demonstration of what lighting can do to lift and enhance the action on stage, and act as a subtle emotional guide for the audience. It was also a nice touch to enter with the smell of burnt toast in the air. And it felt right to see the young Nigel finally do some proper cooking at the end, wielding his knife like a pro, as the gorgeous smell of garlic in olive oil wafted out into the audience. The moments in which trays of sweet treats were handed out to the audience were less successful however, and an example of a device which might well have worked in a festival atmosphere but seemed forced and stilted in a London theatre. The cakes on stage were a different story though. Mrs Potter’s lemon meringue garnered a round of applause all of its own. As Bake Off’s success testifies, the Brits do love a cake.
We also love a bit of nostalgia. And this show unashamedly taps into that desire. There are some slickly choreographed movement sequences to enjoy, as you would expect given director Jonnie Riordan’s Frantic Assembly background, but they are essentially fillers, padding out a very straightforward A-Z linear structure, which is almost wholly driven by the young Nigel’s narration. Giles Cooper was clearly suffering from Press Night nerves last night, and will almost certainly warm into his performance as the run continues, but he has a hard task nonetheless, as he is basically the neutral narrative anchor around which the theatrical action pivots. Lizzie Muncey (Mum), Stephen Ventura (Dad), Marie Lawrence (Joan) and Jake Ferretti (Josh) all give polished, professional performances, but the show as a whole fails to get beneath the skin. There are laughs aplenty, particularly for those audience members of a certain age, for whom Nigel’s memories particularly resonate, but the more soulful moments are lost in the saccharine confection of the whole. There is an awful lot of sugar in this show; if you don’t have a sweet tooth, it’s probably not for you.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Simon Annand
The Other Palace until 3rd August
Previously reviewed at this venue: