Review: Let The Right One In

This excellent adaptation of the Swedish horror novel and film is full of blood and heart

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Speaking to Big Issue North before the opening of Manchester Royal Exchange’s latest production, director Bryony Shanahan admitted that some might question the need for a stage version of the critically acclaimed book and film by Jon Ajvide Lindqvist. Was the transition, via a script written by Jack Thorne (whose previous credits include the exceptional Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), be both worthwhile and successful? Definitely yes.

Set in a winter-bound Swedish town, Let The Right One In focuses on out of place and lonely Oskar, a young teenager who meets strange new arrival Eli on the climbing frame just outside the apartment building where they both live. Despite Oskar’s observations that Eli smells of his (now dead) dog and “infected bandages”, and Eli’s initial hesitance about getting to know the lad, the two outsiders strike up a friendship that quickly blossoms into something deeper. But set against this burgeoning romance something terrible is happening. Someone is slicing up locals and draining their blood and pretty soon it’s clear why.

Blundell is wonderful as Eli, embodying both her character’s monstrous and sympathetic sides

From the outset, this production places itself quite clearly within the horror genre. A local is strung up by his feet and his throat sliced, his blood draining into a petrol can. It’s the first of a splattering of visceral on-stage sequences that will have the faint of heart covering their eyes. But there’s a lot more to this production than blood and gore. At its heart is a story about being an outsider, about sacrifice and most of all about finding connection.

The play holds up well compared with the fantastic original Swedish film and the central characters and themes survive intact. Most importantly the relationship between Eli and Oskar shines through, with both Rhian Blundell and Pete MacHale delivering fantastic performances. Blundell is wonderful as Eli, embodying both her character’s monstrous and sympathetic sides, in turns terrfyingly other-worldly and then comically naive. It would have been easy for her performance to outshine her onstage partner, but MacHale holds his own magnificently. Oskar yearns for the innocence of childhood but is faced with the stark realties of adulthood, and MacHale embodies this sense of desperate adolescence perfectly. You really root from him, this lad who is tragically unaware of the bigger picture as he is drawn towards a fate with little chance of a happy ending. It’s a devastating, pitch-perfect performance.

Indeed, the play unfolds from Oskar’s perspective pretty much throughout, and what’s skimmed over is the wider adult world from which he is for the most part excluded. Although we’re given hints as to what causes his mum to drink, and the probable cause of his parents’ breakup, this is never fully explored. Mercè Ribot is great as Oskar’s mum, but her character remains fleeting, and I’d have liked to have seen more of her. But this is very much a play about growing up, and, to prove the point, a chorus of young people from the Exchange’s Young Company provide background colour and movement. This group reveals how set apart Oskar is from his contemporaries, and on the whole they are well placed, although there are a couple of slightly cringeworthy “youth theatre” moments. One particular scene featuring some co-orientated ice skating feels forced in.

Stefan Race (Jonny). Photos: Johan Persson

Another standout performance worth a mention is Stefan Race as school bully Jonny, possibly the most monstruous of all the characters on stage, blood sucking creatures included. He is spine-chillingly grotesque, but never descends into a panto villain. From the outset I was fearful of what he might do and wishing him a nasty comeuppance.

The production values are, as ever with the Exchange, incredibly high. The use of lighting is at times playful – there’s a beautiful scene between Eli and Oskar that involves them jumping onto squares that light up with every step – but more often than not it’s used to add to the terror. Strobes kick in at certain moments to obscure and then reveal, and there’s nothing quite like being plunged into total darkness for a moment as you wonder where the next shock is going to come from. Excellent sound and music all add to the atmosphere.

The on-stage effects are very well handled. Blood splatters and sprays with abandon at certain points, but the gore is never overused or gratuitous. The use of the round and the intimacy that the Exchange provides with this seating arrangement mean that you feel caught up in the terror and not safety removed from it as you might with a standard proscenium stage. There were plenty of gasps and cries from the audience (me included). Luckily, the script is balanced with some well-played and well-placed humour, along with some quiet tenderness, to lighten the tension.

It’s rare to find horror on stage, with notable exceptions such as The Woman In Black. And while never shying away from its horror credentials, this is a well-rounded production that shocks and engages at every turn. If you let this one into your life, it’ll remain with you for a long time afterwards.

Let the Right One in at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 19 November

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