Review: Frankenstein. (touring) Derby Theatre

Adapted by: Rona Munro

Based on ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

Produced by Selladoor Productions, Matthew Townshend Productions, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Perth Theatre at Horsecross Arts

Few stories have been transformed to other genres as often as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but this latest adaptation for the stage, by Rona Munro, throws a new light entirely on the infamous tale. Presenting Mary Shelley as creator, sometime narrator, of the story, allows the audience to see the process of creativity in action. It also enables the voice of Mary, just 18 when she wrote it, to shine through and demonstrate her ideas and originality.

Eilidh Loan plays Mary, a rather self-assured, ‘goth’ teenager fizzing with energy and with a strong line in dry humour. This quite modern portrayal gives the audience, particularly the large school parties present, easy access to this updated approach. They become part of the process. Mary has been challenged to write a horror story by her literary friends. She is struggling to find a story but then has a nightmare so terrifying, she decides that is the horror story she will write.

The set is a sparse, two storey monochromatic series of doorways and rooms, blurred by wafting dry ice, and reminiscent of a dreamscape. All the characters are assembled, also clothed in black and white, like paper dolls in their paper house, to be moved about, often literally, at Mary’s will. Her blood red blouse the only colour in the picture, and marking her ‘real’ life versus the fictional lives of those she creates.

Victor Frankenstein is Mary’s ‘hero’, an ambitious and clever man, driven by a thirst for knowledge and a craving for recognition. He is her first creation, but quickly she sees that this ‘great man’ is like so many others, driven by an ego that will not allow weakness. Ben Castle-Gibb, in his professional debut, makes a compelling Frankenstein, wrestling with guilt and shame, particularly in his final scene, driven mad by the anguish of what he has set in motion. And so, our sympathy shifts to the ‘monster’.

The crude, lumbering figure of Boris Karloff from the 1931 film is the indelible image that springs to mind. In this production, the ‘monster’ is more human, an innocent born into a world which first rejects him and then refuses him the love he craves. Michael Moreland brings a child-like simplicity to the role but also reveals the complexity of the character written by Shelley. The strong ensemble cast play many roles between them, the storyline sticking very closely to the book in all details.

There is plenty of dramatic tension built, from the misty stage and eerie sounds in the auditorium before the show begins, to sudden reveals which make the audience jump. After all, Mary wanted this to be frightening, to chill people to the bone. Occasionally, these moments are overplayed and feel like they are trying too hard, but overall the tension is maintained.

What is fascinating in this adaptation is the variety and complexity of ideas which are addressed. Ideas which were Mary’s own; questions of the time, of God versus science, of ethics and the ego, of society’s norms and strictures, nature versus nurture. It is surely this compelling obsession with the essence of creation, of life and death, which makes Frankenstein such an enduring story. Did Mary Shelley realise she had created something so horribly fascinating that it would still be haunting people over 200 years later? Rona Munro’s adaptation would say, most emphatically, that she knew exactly what she had created.

Date/s of Derby Theatre run: 20th-25th January 2020

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