Review: Frankenstein by Blackeyed Theatre at South Hill Park

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Max Gallager as Henry, Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein and Lara Cowin as Elizabeth

How does a man make a monster?

It is a question which floated into Mary Shelley’s mind in a dream and one which has subsequently plagued directors and film makers who have tried to bring her monster to life.

Staying firmly away from the lightening-bolt cliches of Hollywood – thank goodness – Blackeyed Theatre has created a unique and captivating creature.

Based on the Bunraku figures of Japanese puppet theatre, Blackeyed’s monster is a construction of aluminium framework and foam body parts which puppet maker Yvonne Stone has cleverly crafted into a sinewy monstrosity, which bends at its joints and drops its jaw to howl in fear or ferocity.

Manned by three members of the cast, who jump in and out of the main narrative to manoeuvre him, Frankenstein’s monster is an eerie, ungainly creation, who talks us through his story with his slow drawl, voiced fantastically by Louis Labovitch. While Frankenstein himself dominates the first half of the piece, with his story feeling a little slow at times, the second half is given over the monster, and it is here the pace quickens, with a ferocious excitement as man and monster come head to head.

But while we have a clear visual cue of the monstrosity, Blackeyed Theatre has also remained faithful to Shelley’s magnificent description of the creature – his waxy skin and lustrous black hair – and Frankenstein’s wild-eyed voicing of it is as powerful as the creature before us.

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Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein with his creature

Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein is a sensation. Arriving disheveled and broken on the ship of explorer Robert Walton (Ashley Sean-Cook), he tells his tale as a warning. But as the story switches back to his thirst for knowledge, and his moment of creation, we see his ambition. His eyes flash with excitement as he digs through the graveyard to fulfil his experiment, and there lies one of Shelley’s greatest questions – is Frankenstein a genius, or a maniac?

Writer John Ginman peppers the language of the piece with signs of darkness and devilish undertones from very early on, nudging us towards the novel’s rich tapestry of themes. There is nature, captured by deep looks into the distance and flashes of lightening, versus nurture, seen in the warmth bestowed on Frankenstein by his friend Henry (Max Gallagher) and his companion Elizabeth (Lara Cowin).

There is science, which we see and hear through the tinkering and clanging of his cleverly constructed instrument cabinet, versus religion, which is stark when Walton bellows ‘if you can control nature, you are God!’.

The cabinet is not the only piece of ingenuity in the staging. Victoria Spearing has designed a versatile set, with Walton’s ship morphing into various locations. Ropes become power cables in the laboratory, and sails become curtains in the bridal bedroom. With a very active smoke machine, and a powerful, and at times heart-quickening, score composed by Ron McAllister, it makes for a tremendously atmospheric production.

Undoubtedly Blackeyed Theatre’s fantastic monster will be the talking point of this piece, as he has been in every take on Frankenstein in popular culture, but there subtleties of language and theatrics which really make this stand out as a masterful retelling of the classic Gothic novel.

Frankenstein is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 24 September. To book visit www.southhillpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review the show so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.

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