Conrad Landin

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Review: Frankenstein, National Theatre

If you’re reading this, I can imagine that you have heard all the hype about Danny Boyle’s production of a new stage rendition of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.

Five stars here; five stars there; here a star, there a star; everywhere a five-star – we get the picture. Then there are the eye-witness (non-professional) accounts: “the best thing I’ve ever seen” etc. etc. etc.

And yet in the few days before I saw the play last Thursday, I got a few comments of a different variety. “I was disappointed,” said one. “Something was missing,” said Tom Foot in the Camden New Journal, who ought to be a trusted source for anyone remotely interested in theatre.

Had the hype meant that it would be hard not to be disappointed?

Entering the Olivier theatre, which always seems a spectacle in itself owing to its sheer magnitude, it was hard not to notice the Danny Boyle effect. I don’t want to use the word razzmatazz, as it’s been overused in reviews of this production, but the set msut be seen to be believed. Although there was one amusing aspect – the bloke who stood in the aisle clutching a huge rope, which he tugged at certain intervals to clang a eardrum-busting bell, must feel he’s being brought down to earth. For he was constantly being asked directions by members of the audience attempting to find their seats.

As someone always up for some innovation in theatre, I was intrigued to see Jai Ho syndrome resonating throughout the play, in music, dance and set.

Equally impressive was the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature created by Victor Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller) and then abandoned in fear. He beautifully captured the transformation from something unknowing altogether to the good-intentioned scholar learning chunks of Paradise Lost to the corrupted killer.

The one strength of Nick Dear’s script were the lines assigned to the creature. The exploration of the Big Questions (aspiration, meaning and ethics – not to sound too trite) made sure the play wasn’t just spectacle and nowt else.

But the lines of the other characters just seemed badly scripted. Even when they were interacting with the creature. A typical (or maybe the most spoiling of the tension) example was when the creature attempted to embrace Victor Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth (Naomie Harris). Her clunky response is “we’ll have none of that”.

Indeed, there were a number of points when one felt it was being overplayed for comedy and the tragic potential was lost. But the dominating aspects were undoubtedly Cumberbatch’s performance as the creature and the overall razzmattazz (yes, I have to use the word again), which made for a truly exceptional production.

I was interested to see Cumberbatch excel in body language given that he is said to be better in the role of Victor – for he and Miller alternate their roles night on night. I don’t imagine I’ll get the chance to see it the other way round, but I can vouch for the fact that you’ll come out completely overwhelmed from this rendition.

So the bad news… it’s sold out in the normal sense. But it’s worth the long queues if you go for the £10 day tickets they do at the National. Seriously. This will be the show of the year. It could well end up in the West End, like War Horse before it, but it won’t be the same without the Olivier stage. That’s why I’d also brave the queues before going to an NT Live screening, where it is beamed live to cinemas. Start Investigating.

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