Review: Frankenstein

A 200th anniversary production of Mary Shelley's book at Manchester's Royal Exchange is a good looking play but too faithful to the text

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While on an expedition to the North Pole, Captain Walton and the crew of his ship rescue a man from the ice. Close to freezing to death, Victor Frankenstein has been chasing something across the icy waste and has a terrible tale to tell.

The Royal Exchange’s new production of Mary Shelley’s novel, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, is a technical marvel. The sound, lighting and on-stage effects work together to create a suitably moody atmosphere, complete with rain, fire, howling winds, thunder storms and the creaking and cracking of the ice sheets that the ship is stuck in. A musical score bubbles away under the performances and, during its most gloriously melodramatic moments, such as when Frankenstein brings the Creature to life, or when he’s working on a female companion for him, the music surges up and the whole thing feels like an updated Hammer Horror production.

It looks brilliant. A stark stage of wooden floorboards that are lifted up to reveal grizzly pits of limbs and bones is transformed effortlessly from ship deck to ice sheet to blood-soaked laboratory.

From the off, with a sudden, scream-filled plunge into darkness, there are some brilliant shocks dished out too. When the Creature is lurking in the dark, the tension in the auditorium is hair raising and it’s a moment of pure theatrical magic – and terror.

Harry Attwell is so good that other performances seem to wither in his presence

Talking of the Creature, Harry Attwell easily walks away with best performance. At times utterly scary, his eyes twinkling in the gloom with eerie preternatural light, he also wins empathy for his character perfectly. He’s both monstrous and desperate, and the way he slowly pieces together language as he starts to learn to talk is captivating.

He’s so good in fact that other performances on the stage seem to wither in his presence, especially Shane Zaza as Victor Frankenstein, whose voice struggles to be heard over Attwell’s deep, booming tones and the ever-present sound effects and music. Zaza does a good handwringing, manic version of the doctor but, in terms of both script and performance, there’s no development to his character. By the time the play is drawing to a close it’s hard to stop your eyes rolling as he launches into another long self-pitying moan about how hard his life is.

This is a new adaptation of Shelley’s novel by April De Angelis but it doesn’t feel particularly revolutionary, or indeed new. At times it’s so pedantically faithful to the source material that the dialogue feels at odds with the modern stage effects. Fair enough – it being the 200th anniversary of the Creature’s birth, perhaps some nod towards tradition is appropriate. But the play itself draws nothing bar the most obvious A-level syllabus themes from the text. We may, by the end of the performance, ask: “Who is the real monster?” But that’s about it.

Sure, not every production of every play has to raise timely questions about gender or equality, but with so much going on in the world and with so many monsters of our own creation walking about on the world’s stage, it feels like a missed opportunity not to do a little bit more with the text. Unlike the Creature himself, in terms of drawing out any deeper themes and impressions from the original book, this production is sometimes less than the sum of its parts. But it’s a fine looking play, and it’s a good night out, with some scares that will please fans of Shelley’s monstrously brilliant book.

Frankenstein is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 14 April

Photo: Johan Persson

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Interact: Responses to Review: Frankenstein

  • Brezzer
    21 Mar 2018 22:44
    Probably the best production and theatrical performance of Frankenstein I have ever seen . Did we see the same thing ?

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