Based on the novel by Mary Shelley
26th September - 4th November 2017
The Brockley Jack Studio, London
& Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford
Adapted & Directed by Ross McGregor
Assistant Directed by Laurel Marks
Lighting Design by Ben Jacobs
Sound Design by Alistair Lax
Fight Direction by Yarit Dor
Photography by The Ocular Creative
Cornelia Baumann - Mary Shelley
Oliver Brassell - Henry / Percy Shelley
Zoe Dales - Agatha / Claire Clairmont
Victoria Llewellyn - Elizabeth Lavenza
Will Pinchin - The Creature
Philip Ridout - Godwin / Alphonse
Christopher Tester - Victor Frankenstein
Beatrice Vincent - Fanny Imlay
‘A Sight To Behold’ ★★★★★
With so many adaptations and parodies of Frankenstein, Arrows and Traps Theatre Company had it all to do on the Night. And with an audience who might have commenced the rigorous costume shopping for Halloween, there was an expectation to see something mysterious, unorthodox and above all scary. Ross McGregor’s adaptation of Mary Shelly’s famous Novel which celebrates its 200-year anniversary, was simply a sight to behold!
For the first time, to my knowledge, Frankenstein was staged with the story of Victor, the Monster and Mary Shelley all beautifully interweaved. Yes, it was a three hander! All three stories made up a night full of unexpected humour, family feuds and plain old-fashioned horror.
Walking into the theatre it felt like we had been teleported into a Gothic camp, with a mood that created anticipation even before the play began. It commenced ingeniously with the story of Mary who was yet to marry poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, to then become Mary Shelley as we now know. Hats off to Ross McGregor for journeying the audience through the life of the author whose world is evidently mirrored to that of her creation. Seeing her world unfold, shed light on her unexpected sources of inspiration and reveals why Frankenstein remains a classic.
Ross McGregor’s keen eye on strong interrelationships between performer and audience is what makes him a stand out director. There seemed to be a lot of attention to detail especially with the costumes which were flawless. Curator Kate Dorney explains in an article that ‘stage costumes may seem to be considered clothes, while a chair on stage is never seen as just a chair, but is routinely understood as part of the scenography’. In this production however, the actors seem to understand their bodies and made their costumes a part of their individual stories. Nothing was left to chance.
Will Pinchin, playing the Creature was exceptional and a delight to watch. Will had a difficult job of not over playing a very complex character but also staying true to its purpose. He had the emotions of the audience in the palm of his hand and his relationship with blind Agatha played by the talented Zoe Dales, was ravishing to say the least. Zoe Dales was gracious in her performance and totally took my breath away with her subline take on her character. Christopher Tester, strolled through the play with so much confidence, I had to pinch and remind myself he wasn’t a real scientist.
Every actor earned their right to be on that stage with a stellar ensemble work accompanied by a production team whose creativity left me booking tickets to see it again.
★★★★★ LONDON PUB THEATRES
Arrows & Traps new adaptation of Frankenstein breathes new life into the classic story with style and sensitivity. Writer/director Ross McGregor and dramaturg Kate Bannister have steered clear of all clichés and created a fresh, often funny, and insightful vision by interweaving the story of Mary Shelley’s life with her novel.
Beginning with an older Mary returning from a disappointing theatrical production of Frankenstein, Shelley’s life is seen in flashbacks. The circumstances of her own birth and her fractious relationship with her sisters and disapproving father, her love for Shelley and her devastating losses as a mother are all there. This cleverly shows the parallels between Shelley’s life and the characters’ without overstressing the point, and adds a deeper sense of melancholy to the story. The creature’s storyline and Victor Frankenstein’s storyline run alongside Shelley’s. Only Victor’s story runs chronologically, with his youthful scientific zeal galvanising after the death of his mother into the quest for creating life. The creature’s story begins with his meeting with blind Agatha, giving the audience a chance to form an attachment to the innocent and sweet creature that makes the stunning creation scene at the end of act one much more brutal and unnerving.
With most of the cast playing multiple roles, and the switches between storylines and times, this could have been an unmitigated disaster, but the transitions are seamless. The cast, lighting, sound and subtle costume changes make it instantly clear what is going on, and keep the play’s pace from flagging between scenes. Odin Corie gives the characters from the novel a cool steampunk vibe, contrasting with a more romanticised Victorian feel to Mary’s family.
Cornelia Baumann is a safe pair of hands for the pivotal role of Mary Shelley. Her commanding stage presence is needed as she is hardly ever off stage. Her expressions as she watches her creations interact are wonderful. Even when the spotlight isn’t on her, she never gives less than her best. Christopher Tester’s Victor is intense and otherworldly, and Will Pinchin is phenomenal as the creature. As resident movement director with Arrows & Traps, you’d expect an impressive physical performance, but he will blow your mind. Beginning as a mewling, childlike figure, his scenes with Zoe Dales as Agatha are delightful as his speech and personality evolve, and he is terrifying as he becomes a true monster in his revenge. Just glorious.
Whether you have read Frankenstein many times, or a green flat headed monster is all that springs to mind – go and see this production. It will make you fall in love with this phenomenal story all over again.
★★★★ FAIRY POWERED PRODUCTIONS
It’s difficult to tackle a classic of Frankenstein’s proportions. But director Ross McGregor and the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre really know how to put on a show. Arresting, emotional and full of atmospheric touches, this reimagining tells the original tale with grace while adding a unique narrative spin.
To mark the 200-year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel, McGregor felt it was his time to add to the Frankenstein canon. “Frankenstein is so iconic… it’s such a flexible and deep piece of literature. Plus, it’s just so much fun to do. There’s literally a scene where a monster made of dead people comes to life. You don’t see that in Alan Ayckbourn.”
McGregor and the Arrow Theatre Company’s enjoyment of the production is apparent. At a running time of 2 hours 50 minutes, it’s a lengthy play that intertwines three stories: that of Victor Frankenstein, the Creature and Mary Shelley herself. It is arguably longer than it needs to be and some of the shorter scenes are a tad superfluous. Yet each plot is interesting and well developed, and it would appear the length derives from a desire not to diminish any of the three tales that are fascinating in their own right.
Mary Shelley’s own story is told through flashbacks. Shelley herself (Cornelia Baumann) is older, suffering from a brain tumour and reflecting on her childhood. We witness her fraught family life, early infatuation with Percy Shelley and the tragedies of her early twenties.
This is conflated with the personal story of Victor Frankenstein (Christopher Tester), which focuses much more on the impact of his scientific pursuits on his family than typical adaptations. Tester does justice as the young scientist whose genius propels him to madness, displaying little sympathy to the family he leaves behind- arguably slightly more remorse would have given the character greater depth.
The third storyline focuses on the Creature’s encounter with Safie (Zoe Dales). In this adaptation, the blind Safie takes pity on the Creature to the point of teaching him to speak. Their encounters are bittersweet, imbued with sympathetic tension. Will Pinchin’s portrayal of the Creature is definitely the standout and it is a fantastically physical character performance that captures the Creature’s lumbering, lost and confused state perfectly.
The costume, set design and commitment to detail elevates the production; there is a real air of professionalism about it. And the lighting, designed by Ben Jacobs, is truly extraordinary and the scene of bringing the Creature to life is- appropriately- electrifying.
A YOUNGER THEATRE
On the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it can be hard to grab the attention of theatregoers with another stage adaptation of the novel. But with its interesting interpretation of the classic, Arrows & Traps Theatre Company’s Frankenstein stands out from the crowd for including the novelist herself as a character within the play. Although this has the potential to come across as a cheesy gimmick, writer and director Ross McGregor’s choice to place her in the story actually gives a glimpse into the life of the woman behind this legendary tale, which produces an effective piece of theatre.
The show opens with a middle-aged Mary Shelley (Cornelia Baumann) suffering from an illness, experiencing flashbacks to her youth, and weaved into these personal stories is Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein (Christopher Tester) is a young scientist, interested in new inventions, constantly reading to broaden his knowledge, and struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother. Alongside this narrative, there is also that of his Creature (Will Pinchin), who, after being rejected by Frankenstein, is in hiding and befriends a blind young woman who teaches him to speak and read. At the same time, Shelley’s own life is in turmoil – she has eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a married man, at the disappointment of her father, and has a series of miscarriages. The parallels between her life and the story of Frankenstein is evident, and both culminate into tragic loss.
Baumann is exceptional as Mary Shelley. Her interpretation of the character is fully recognised, combining the author’s intelligence with her talent, while also creating someone the audience can sympathise with. It’s always inspiring to see a multi-layered female character on stage, and it’s equally enjoyable when the actor delivers this character with strength.
As with all other Arrows & Traps shows, the ensemble work is on point, with strong direction from McGregor. Some notable performances include Pinchin as the Creature, who brings a perfect balance of terror and sensitivity to the character, with small bursts of comedy, which helps humanise him. Zoe Dales as Agatha, the blind woman who teaches the Creature how to speak, is worth a mention too, as the scenes between her and the Creature are some of the best in the piece. Full of emotion and subtly written humour, they’re a joy to watch.
McGregor has created an engaging and unique adaptation, with a well-written story and some welcome surprises. Ben Jacobs’ lighting design brilliantly elevates the ghoulish atmosphere, foregrounding the story’s magical element: electricity. What makes this Frankenstein stand out from the others is the fact that the audience gets to see the woman behind the monster story, her intellect and talent for writing, as well as her family and how a series of tragic events may have shaped her. Arrows & Traps’ play is a successful addition to the company’s innovative adaptations, and a perfect show to see this October.
Eda Nacar, I WATCH PLAYS & STUFF
"IT WILL STAY IN MY MIND A LONG TIME"
Some things in life are a given. There aren’t many I grant you, but one of them is that if it involves Mary Shelley I will be there! Frankenstein is one of my favourite books, first read in my mid-teens from a very Gothic looking, battered leather bound edition from nineteen twenty something bought for pennies at a jumble sale. This says so much about the teenager I was and the literary road it placed me on.
Strangely enough years later I made a friend who had pretty much the same experience in her younger years and together as adults we have probably seen and discussed this one story more than can ever be considered normal! So no prizes for guessing that I did NOT attend this production of Frankenstein alone! I wouldn’t have dreamed of it!
So together, we two Mary Shelley groupies, entered the intimate room that is Brockley Jack Theatre and sat pretty much ON the stage, torn between anticipation and fear of disappointment. The smoke machine built up a silent eerie mist and the lights flickered and dimmed slowly…
The play tells us three tales simultaneously: From the very beginning of the story, the fictional epic that is of creator building upon the idea of forming life. From the middle of the novel, the created and abandoned creature hunting for meaning and acceptance and also the biographical story of Mary Shelley herself.
The symbiotic relationship of Victor Frankenstein (Christopher Tester) and the Creature (Will Pinchin) is acted beautifully, with the young experimenter’s foray into early scientific discovery delivering a clear, slow slide into obsession, whilst his naive, maligned and confused creation grows in intelligence, despair, loneliness and anger.
Shelley’s suggestions that it’s the losses in Frankenstein’s life that drive his need to control death are evident throughout the script, and Ross McGregor has adapted the novel onto the stage amazingly well. It remains true to the original, explores what is known of the author’s life, and manages to scatter a good dose of observational laughs throughout.
Although the fiction aspect of the play runs scenes from both the first half of the story and the second half alongside each other (sometimes via alternating scenes and sometimes with both stories on stage at the same time), the story progression remains clear, if not chronological, and engages the audience in rethinking the play rather than just observing it.
The third narrative woven through this criss-crossing platform is that of the novelist herself. Her story is also told across two eras; following her life as it is drawing to it’s end and intermittently as she meets Percy Shelley for the first time and embarks on her life with him.
Cornelia Baumann is wonderful in her portrayal of all aspects of a life full of challenges and tragedies without confusing the audience as to which particular aspect of Mary Shelley’s life is unfolding on stage. I like the way this play draws on the parallels between her and her characters. It makes you wonder if, a hundred years before psychoanalysis began, this woman wrote out her own self analysis deliberately or unintentionally, and whether it helped her in any way to cope.
The rest of the talented cast (Oliver Brassell, Zoe Dales, Victoria Llewellyn, Phillip Ridout and Beatrice Vincent) each take on multiple roles that are essential to the story. Making every character different with minimal, but very Steampunk inspired, costume changes. Added to that, a beautifully designed yet simple set (Maisey Corie) and atmospheric lighting (Guy Lewis) and you have a visual treat.
It isn’t easy to produce a well loved story without either offending it’s fans or sliding into a boring retelling, and this play avoids both. Arrows & Traps Theatre Company didn’t disappoint.
I’ll leave you with my equally fanatical Shelley buddy’s verdict: ‘It will stay in my mind for a long time’
★★★★ - THE SPY IN THE STALLS
Well acted and directed, an outstanding evening
Ross McGregor, who also directs his play, has mixed the story of Frankenstein with that of Mary Godwin who wrote it 200 years ago aged nineteen. It is an interesting way to approach telling the tale of Frankenstein and his monster, a tale perhaps too often told. Since it also requires the cast to play parts in both stories it can get slightly confusing not through any inadequacy on the part of the actors, but because the Frankenstein story comes burdened with all those cinema versions as opposed to what Mary actually wrote.
Cornelia Baumann is a spell binding Mary, small, determined, a passionate yet contained being, and not, as are the rest of her family, totally under the control of their father, the political philosopher William Godwin. Her performance holds the attention as the action shifts between reality and fiction and provides a very necessary point of focus. The other outstanding performance is from Will Pinchin who plays the Creature and manages the transition from a dumb monster figure to a wholly articulate and tragic one, a being protesting at a destiny he had neither sought nor deserved and ultimately destroys his creator.
Good though Christopher Tester is as Frankenstein, the play is not about him, but belongs to Mary.
McGregor has handled the complexities of the play’s double strand plotting skilfully, the costumes are handsome and the result is an evening which both stimulates and challenges. It is possibly a shade too long, and something possibly could be done to make clear who all the women are – Mary has a sister called Fanny, who seems to have seen the romantic libidinous poet Shelley as a possibility for herself, as well as the half sister, and there is Shelley’s wife Harriet among others who come and go.
Knowing something before hand about Mary and her life with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is useful, if not essential, and the same goes for a quick look at the plot of the novel she wrote in Geneva in 1816 while on holiday with Shelley, her half sister Claire Clairmont, and Lord Byron. It was a very complicated world – children are born, children die, affairs are embarked upon – which came to a tragic end in 1822 when Shelley was drowned off Viareggio where they were on holiday escaping creditors as usual.
★★★★ - REVIEWSGATE
You may think you know the story of Frankenstein - in the 200 years since Mary Shelley wrote the novel for which she is most famed, it has received countless adaptations and sunk deep into the collective consciousness. But chances are that Arrows & Traps' version will disarm you and make you consider it anew as it introduces a new, crucial character into the narrative - Mary Shelley herself.
Writer/director Ross McGregor's reinterpretation of this tale is masterfully done. Framed as something of a fever dream, a hallucination by the older Shelley who suffered from a brain tumour for more than a decade before her death, the story here is split in three. We follow the story of the Creature and, separately, of Victor Frankenstein; but we also explore Shelley's life too, the experiences that led up to her creation of such an epic piece of literature while still a teenager, the curious darkness that stalked her thereafter.
It's a fascinating way of revisiting familiar material, one which examines the influences as much as the end product, revealing just how much of her self Shelley poured into the novel. The strongest element is her difficult relationship to the maternal bond, both in her own mother dying after giving birth to her and the deaths of several of her own children whilst very young, vividly refracted through both the Creature's 'adolescence' and Victor's familial situation, plus the effect on her own connection to her father.
And reflecting this treatment, McGregor stages his play boldly too. Several of the company play multiple roles, switching from timeframe with the doffing of a hat and though it may take a minute to remember who exactly is who, this plays beautifully into the haziness of the older Shelley's recollections. Timelines bleed into one another, dead bodies rise from the floor to suddenly become someone else, we find ourselves in a marvelously disconcerting dream-like state, realised perfectly by Ben Jacobs' atmospheric shafts of lighting.
Odin Corie's excellent costume design with its hints of steampunk add to the atmosphere, and as we have become accustomed to from this accomplished company, performances are excellent. Cornelia Baumann (previously a uncommonly great Lady Macbeth) is powerful as both incarnations of Mary, full of determination even in an uncompromising world, something we see hints of in Christopher Tester's obdurate (and silkily voiced) Victor. And there's extraordinary physical work from Will Pinchin, Arrows & Traps' resident movement director as an intriguingly intellectual take on the Creature. A fearlessly inventive Frankenstein all round.
IAN FOSTER - THERE OUGHT TO BE CLOWNS
THE STRONGEST ASSET OF THIS FRANKENSTEIN IS THE FRESHNESS OF THE ADAPTATION
You have to be careful with the classics. Adapting a well-known novel for another medium risks attracting the critical eye and disapproval of the original work’s admirers. Frequently-adapted stories also carry the burden of being compared to previous versions. There have been innumerable Frankensteins on stage and screen since Mary Shelley’s novel was published in 1818, from the first theatrical version in 1823 to Nick Dear’s lacklustre adaptation for Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011. How does writer/director Ross McGregor’s new interpretation rank among its army of predecessors?
The strongest asset of this Frankenstein is the freshness of the adaptation. McGregor has returned to the original novel and produced a script that disregards the cultural clutter of other attempts. It’s a highly intelligent response to Shelley’s narrative: faithful but not slavishly so, preserving the philosophical heart of the novel, honouring the iconic thrills of the story, and introducing a significant biographical counterpoint to the main subject.
As well as recounting the tale of Victor Frankenstein’s ill-conceived ambition to create life, and the monstrous/pitiable creature that results, McGregor devotes large parts of his script to the family life of Cornelia Baumann’s Mary Godwin (as was) and her sisters, and the effect on them of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (Oliver Brassell) arrival. The tumultuous relationships within the group, Mary’s literary ambitions, and the tragic deaths of her and Shelley’s children attain as much significance as Frankenstein’s story. Although the links between the two narratives aren’t very clearly demonstrated, Mary’s affair with Shelley is fascinating in its own right.
Not all the characterisation is as deftly handled as Mary and her siblings. Victor Frankenstein (Christopher Tester) is given little to do apart from obsess about his experiments, so when he and his long-suffering love Elizabeth (Victoria Llewellyn) finally get together there’s ironically not a spark between them. More effective is Zoe Dales as blind Agatha, who teaches the creature to speak. This part is usually an old man, and re-imagining it in this way is a smart move that breathes new life into one of the most interesting relationships in the play.
Of course, we expect a decent dose of thrills and chills from Frankenstein, and the production duly obliges, with fantastic music, classic thunderclaps and some extraordinary stage craft on display at key moments.
Although this is a very professional and intellectually rigorous show, I wasn’t sure about how it presents the creature, skilfully performed as he is by Will Pinchin. McGregor imagines him as a sort of twisted child, which is a valid reading but jars somewhat with expectations. Appearing at first as a sort of gurning hunchback, only able to grunt and laugh, it’s difficult to feel there’s much dramatic weight – or threat – to the unfortunate ‘monster’. He becomes much more convincing as the play progresses and the creature’s thirst for revenge shaves off the innocent edges of the creation.
A full-bodied show that engages for its entire duration, McGregor and his company have conjured up a very fine development of this enduring modern myth.
★★★★ - EVERYTHING THEATRE
When a stage is next to the local pub, one can’t help their scepticism. The Brockley Jack is a tiny venue, seating no more than 50 people who surround the performers on three sides. The lighting is bleak yet colourful, like the poster for The Exorcist, and spectators are wrapped in fake fog. The scepticism rises. How can this theatre-group transform a story that’s already been done to death and forced back to life again and again? But within ten minutes, these doubts are set on fire.
Theatre company Arrows & Traps specialise in electrifying classic texts for modern audiences. In their latest production of Frankenstein, adapter and director Ross McGregor tells a more fragmented version of events. Starting with Mary Shelley (Cornelia Baumann) on stage, the revered writer is pulled back-and-forth between scrambled chapters in Frankenstein and the tragic events that inspired them. She appears as a nostalgic phantom within both timelines, as fact and fiction become blurred.
McGregor’s English degree shines through this production as the viewer enjoys an entertaining comparative analysis between the text and the tragic influences in the author’s life. They align together, bringing a new sadness to the narrative. The play does jump too much between the different timelines, frustrating an already complicated structure and anyone unfamiliar with the original story will be dumbfounded by the display. But one does feel like a scholar by the end.
The Arrows & Traps wackiness is overdone at times, particularly during the Creature’s reanimation scene. The room is shrouded in darkness for a Tron-like light show that doesn’t feel appropriate for the human tone of the piece. Neither does the dramatic music, which feels better suited to a cheesy blockbuster.
The length of the play is also an issue. At two-and-a-half hours, the audience twitches in their seats. There are many irrelevant subplots within the Shelley timeline that serve only to stunt the story, and wouldn’t be missed if taken out. The diversion with Shelley’s sister’s relationship with Lord Byron feels especially superfluous. Nevertheless, it is an enlightening experience.
A thoughtful and energetic adaptation, Arrows & Traps brings new life to an old classic. With humorous and emotional performances all round, especially from Baumann and Will Pinchin as the Creature, this is a production that will fiddle with audience anticipations to create a shocking surprise.
★★★★ - THE UPCOMING
Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about Mary Shelley’s immortal Frankenstein there comes a bold and thrilling stage adaptation that breathes life into the Gothic horror story.
Writer and director Ross McGregor has created a monster that appears to simultaneously evoke profound sympathy and poignancy along with horror and a chilling revulsion.
McGregor’s innovative version of Frankenstein, for his Arrow & Traps Theatre Company, which opened at South London’s Jack Studio Theatre on Thursday night, thankfully avoids all the cliches and Hammer Horror schlock.
Instead the artistic director has woven strands from the original narrative, refined and reanimated them.
It sparks the story into being with a lightning bolt that energises the major plot points from the book but with a refreshing new perspective.
Here we have a dying Mary Shelley, gripped by fevered hallucinations and remembrances, distorting time to re-live scenes from both her past and present but also from her most famous book. The ghosts of the past swirl around until she isn’t sure of anything.
As a director McGregor has thrown caution to the wind and come up with a hugely ambitious production that boasts tremendous verve and imagination. Scenes are played out simultaneously or dancing around each other with most of the cast, particularly Oliver Brassell, performing lightning character changes. In one breath he is Percy Shelley or even his son, also called Percy, or he is Victor Frankenstein’s best friend, Henry, while in others he plays a struggling farmer called Felix whose blind sister befriends the hideous monster.
But at its heart is a trio who carry the weight of the play – Will Pinchin as the horribly stitched together monster; Christopher Tester as the ambitious and grieving Victor Frankenstein who is obsessed with finding the key to life itself; and Cornelia Baumann as the writer and narrator Mary Shelley.
Mary’s life was steeped in death. Her own mother died giving birth to her and, later, she endured endless miscarriages or lost children in their infancy.
It’s no wonder that she, like her creation, yearned to save those she loved and extend the lives of humanity.
But, while enthralling a literati gathering with her horror story, she was also reflecting a remarkable age when society was on the cusp of major change. The Industrial Revolution had brought about the invention of astonishing machinery. Electricity, medicine and science brought about colossal advances. Suddenly people questioned religion and god. What if the power to guide our lives were in our hands and not an unseen deity?
She envisaged Frankenstein as a single-minded trail-blazer, intent on pushing the boundaries of medical science, his first experiment at creating life in a laboratory truly revolutionary.
And what he created, discarded and eventually rejected, terrified of its potential power, was the epitome of evil, an inhumane and soulless creature cobbled together from the remnants of slaughterhouses and mortuaries.
But Pinchin’s very physical and emotionally intense performance, aided by his own inventive make-up, instead gives the creature tremendous pathos. He is capable of great harm, instinctive yet also compassionate, an anti-hero of his time who rails against the mistreatment of the unfortunate and vulnerable. Un-named, not worthy of even that most basic of dignities that would define him as a human being, he stumbles into the story barely out of the clinical womb which sired him. Hardly able to walk, his only rudimentary abilities are to discern everything by taste and smell.
More animal than man, he lopes about, unable to speak, surviving in only the most primitive way – until he meets a young blind girl who, unable to judge him on appearance alone, takes him under her wing and teaches him to talk and read. Very soon she’s got him onto Macbeth and Milton’s Paradise Lost – hugely ambitious I’d have thought but their themes moot to the plot – and soon he is more of a gentleman than the lunatic who created him. But the relationship between master and slave is doomed to tragedy as is that of their creator and her family members. Baumann delivers a powerful performance that veers from a skittish and studious young Mary who seduces her sister’s married boyfriend, the poet Percy Shelley, to a woman crippled by depression, anxiety and illness.
Tester too takes his character from wide-eyed and naive young medical student, inventing light-bulbs and steam-powered toasters, to a man haunted by his mother’s death and determined to be at the vanguard of a brave new world.
But it is Pinchin’s sorrowful monster who leaves a lasting impression. His interaction with the young, blind Agatha (a fine turn by Zoe Dales) is poignant, heartwarming and funny. The only thing that doesn’t ring true is her language. It’s far too 21st century.
There are a couple of stunning, stand-out, set pieces in the production, brought to the stage by a superb backstage team of creatives. Ben Jacobs’ atmospheric and effective lighting, coupled with sound by Alistair Lax, really makes a difference, heightening tension, providing suspense and shocks.
My only criticism, if indeed it’s possible to find any in this compelling drama, is that it is overlong and could do with at least 20 minutes cut out. You sometimes feel that McGregor wants to include everything, which indeed, he has tried to do by having the Shelley life story, including her family’s involvement, play alongside the Frankenstein yarn.
It’s all great stuff but, at 2hrs 25mins, is too lengthy. It needs its writer to take a step back and let his director’s instinct take charge.
★★★★ - STAGE REVIEW
By now familiar with Arrows & Traps’ particular brand of theatre, I was as usual very impressed by this adaptation of Frankenstein directed by Ross McGregor. This production integrates the story of its very creation by following a young Mary Shelley and her own dramatic life, as well as the threads of Victor Frankenstein’s desire for knowledge the Creature’s exposure to the unforgiving world around him. Creation is the central theme – the responsibility towards one’s progeny, in many senses – tying this approach together nicely. Having known very little about Mary Shelley going into this viewing, I was very much inspired to investigate her life when I left.
Cornelia Baumann is the perfect actress to lend Mary Shelley the requisite intelligence and darkness of her creative and romantic life. She is also a solid presence, remaining on stage for much of the production to weave each thread of the story together. I was as compelled by this arc, as the story within it – Shelley’s life imbues each aspect of the tale of Frankenstein with new significance, giving this production a freshness and depth rarely seen in adaptations of this classic.
There are some fabulous performers on this stage, Victoria Llewellyn lending a quiet power to Elizabeth Lavenza and Zoe Dales a charming and sympathetic Agatha. Christopher Tester is suitably esoteric as the tortured Victor Frankenstein. The highlight of the production, however, is undoubtedly Will Pinchin’s performance as the Creature. His physicality in the role is both childlike and strong, and accompanied by the deft and detailed evolution of his speech, offers up a Creature who is both terrifying and entirely sympathetic, a perfect counterpart to Tester’s nervous Frankenstein.
While the pace certainly slows by the end of the second half, this is an otherwise impressive production of this classic story. With the climactic moment of the Creature’s birth sitting just before the interval, it is an understandable challenge to maintain the level of energy of the first half. A longer moment with Mary Shelley at the end, harkening back to the opening scene would have tied the stories together all the more tightly, as her personal story is very much the origin and heart of the tale. Regardless, this is an excellent adaptation of this story, beautifully staged and sensitively performed. As ever, clever lighting and staging complement solid performances and thoughtful writing – another quality Arrows & Traps production.
★★★★ - LONDON THEATRE 1
"ALLOWS US TO CONSIDER THE THEMES OF THE NOVEL IN A WHOLE NEW WAY"
It’s quite a feat to breathe new life into one of the world’s most popular and iconic novels – but there’s no doubt Arrows & Traps’ Ross McGregor has succeeded with his adaptation of Frankenstein. Like the novel, it tells both Frankenstein’s and the Creature’s story, but reframes these within a fascinating insight into the life of their creator, Mary Shelley. The result is thrilling, poignant, often surprisingly funny and – unsurprisingly – visually beautiful, and it allows us to consider the themes of the novel in a whole new way.
In fact, this is much more Mary’s story than it is Frankenstein’s, and the always brilliant Cornelia Baumann leads the cast with a moving portrayal of the troubled writer, now older and suffering with ill health and bad memories. Drawn into a passionate romance with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was still a teenager, despite the disapproval of society and the attempts of her father William Godwin to keep them apart, she went on to face the tragic loss of three of her four children, a near-fatal miscarriage and then the death of her husband in a shipwreck not long afterwards. In light of all this, it makes sense that the adaptation of her novel focuses primarily on the relationship between parent and child, and invites us to question what it is that makes someone a parent in the first place.
A real highlight of the show is seeing Will Pinchin – the Arrows’ Movement Director – take to the stage for the first time as the Creature. Having admired his work in many previous productions, it’s great to see it in the flesh, and his performance proves to be worth the wait. Unlike the classic Hollywood portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster who was “born” evil, this Creature starts out as a gentle soul, a frightened, child-like figure eager to learn and play. It’s the rejection of those he loves that creates the monster, and Pinchin’s cold fury and sharp intellect in the play’s later scenes are far more chilling than any lumbering movie depiction.
Christopher Tester’s Frankenstein, meanwhile, undergoes a similar transformation from a likeable, earnest young geek to an obsessive genius, capable of creating life but not appreciating its true worth.
With three interwoven stories, all taking place at different times and in different locations and a lot of historical information to digest, there are occasions when it becomes a little hard to follow; some knowledge of the novel is also probably an advantage to help pinpoint where we are in the chain of events. But the skill of the actors (and a few swift wardrobe changes) ensures that despite some significant multi-roling – particularly from Oliver Brassell, who plays no fewer than four major characters – we can always identify who we’re looking at.
Another bonus is the presence of some strong female characters. Shelley’s novel is dominated by men, but here we have not only Mary herself but also her two sisters Fanny and Claire – as well as Agatha, the young blind woman who teaches the Creature to speak and read. Played by Zoe Dales, she’s enjoyably feisty and sarcastic, but also a rare source of compassion in a world that’s far too quick to reject them both just because they’re different.
As in all Arrows productions, there’s also a lot going on visually – from Odin Corie’s steampunk-inspired costumes to Ben Jacobs’ lighting design, which combined with sound from Alistair Lax creates some striking moments. Most impressive is the sequence in which the Creature first comes to life; it never fails to amaze how this company can create such drama on such a small stage.
Frankenstein is the first Arrows show written by artistic director Ross McGregor, who must be feeling a certain sympathy for Mary Shelley seeing his baby come to life on stage every night. But I don’t think this ingenious creation will be turning on its parent any time soon.
LIZ DYER, THEATRE THINGS
This new stage adaptation of Frankenstein introduces an unlikely character into the mix: Mary Shelley (or Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as she is for much of the story), author of the original book. Along with her she brings a host of characters – her sisters, her father, her lover (the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley) and even a fleeting, sleeping Byron.
Ross McGregor’s re-telling cuts between Mary Shelley’s life and the more traditional story of Dr Frankenstein and his creature. It makes for an immersive tale. There are some comparisons to be drawn between the two stories, though the links are tentative: they’re two good stories, and they work well together, but to claim further parallels would be misleading.
The cutting between the two narratives, and leaps forward and back in time, are handled diligently. However, the cast changes characters frequently, and the moments following scene changes do take concentration if you don’t want your head left spinning. Sometimes it can take a few seconds to take in where we are and who we’re with.
A play based on Frankenstein is always going to be in need of a strong creature, which is exactly what we get with Will Pinchin’s sensitive and physical portrayal. There are some touching scenes between the creature and Agatha (Zoe Dales), his only friend, who happens to be blind. As Mary Shelley, Cornelia Baumann brings gravity and consistency to the piece, and there are a string of other outstanding performances throughout.
The play runs at 2 hours and 30 minutes including the interval (and I clocked it as slightly longer), which is a long while to sit in lightly cushioned pub theatre seat. Not that you’ll disengage from the story: the staging is exciting, and some well-thought-of touches keep it exciting throughout. The creature’s reanimation involves neon lights and a movement sequence, and the touches of steampunk in the props and costumes is cute. Overall, this feels like a production punching above its weight and deserving of a mighty audience.
★★★★ - REMOTEGOAT
Frankenstein is a carefully arranged piece of writing in which a chronicle of the life of Mary Shelley is paralleled with scenes from her famous novel.
Writer and adaptor Ross McGregor doesn't propose that the former informed the latter—this wouldn't hold water since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was in her late teens—but he has placed the scenes in such a way as to form links, be they real or imagined, between events in the life of Mary Shelley and key episodes in Frankenstein.
Mary Shelley had a turbulent life fated from its outset to be unconventional, being the daughter of a liberal philosopher father and founding feminist mother whose early death did little to diminish her influence on the young Mary and the wider household which included a half-sister and later step-siblings.
Mary Shelley is known above all else for writing the novel Frankenstein and for being the wife (eventually) of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with whom she had four children, three of whom died in infancy, so McGregor's play makes for an especially interesting watch.
Will Pinchin gives a hauntingly emotive performance as The Creature, alienated from society by his appearance and indecorous manner.
Scarred and club-footed, Pinchin lets us see the warm-hearted, dignified human within the disfigured shell, a contrast to the gentleman scientist Victor Frankenstein, driven and selfish in his endeavours to control life force.
Christopher Tester captures Victor's passion and the frustration of being on the threshold of discovery and then caught on the horns of a malignant dilemma. It is a strong performance equalled by that of Cornelia Baumann as a resolute Mary Shelley, enduring loss, social ostracism and financial hardship with self-respect.
Beatrice Vincent's is a tender portrayal of Mary's half sister Fanny Imlay, taunted by her illegitimacy, impoverished and socially disgraced by Shelley, Mary and step-sister Claire's unorthodox living arrangements.
Zoe Dales plays Claire and, from the novel, Agatha the blind woman who befriends The Creature, and playing both Victor's long-suffering girlfriend Elizabeth and Shelley's abandoned first wife is Victoria Llewellyn. The four carefully distinguished portrayals are as refreshingly spirited young women.
Ross McGregor has done a great job at creating some strongly atmospheric and dramatic scenes, supported by striking lighting (designed by Ben Jacobs) and fervent music.
As I have said of other directors of their own work, Ross McGregor the director should, as well as modifying some linguistic anachronisms of McGregor the writer, do some judicious cutting as the play starts to overstay its welcome in order to reach the novel's tragic resolution.
This adaptation is nonetheless a rewarding experience which works extremely well as a moving exploration of isolation, loss and parental abandonment.
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From Darkness to promote me?”
Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant and ambitious young student, discovers the secret of creating life from the remains of the dead. But elation at his triumph is replaced by horror when he realises the full extent of his monstrous creation. Abandoned by the one who made him, Frankenstein’s Creature is left alone in a world that fears and rejects him, and soon his innocence turns to misery. Increasingly desperate and vengeful, he determines to track down his creator and strike a terrifying bargain.
Having seen the brilliant Arrows and Traps production of Crime and Punishment, I was excited to see what they made of Frankenstein. It was a sensitive production, with a consistently brilliant cast, and the evening was peppered with little, sheltered moments of perfection. Unfortunately the two narratives of Frankenstein and Mary Shelley never quite meshed, and the production didn’t always take the audience along with it.
The Creature was rendered brilliantly by Will Pinchin: an unsettling, lurching gait; slow, spitting acquisition of sounds and words and finally ideas, a gentle nature trapped in a clumsy and hideous exterior. Forget Hamlet, in my view to play the Creature must be one of the most challenging roles in theatre. Zoe Dales as Agatha, the blind girl who teaches the Creature to speak was believably tender as well as amusing, and the two worked together faultlessly.
Special mention also to Beatrice Vincent, who brings a special tenderness and quiet moral courage to Fanny Imlay – Mary’s sister whose trials are more sympathetic than Mary’s own in many respects. Oliver Brassell is brilliant as Shelley, self-absorbed and seemingly totally careless of the misery he slowly brings to every woman he touches, and equally brilliant as the cheerful and devoted Henry Clerval.
In some ways the jumpy, non-linear approach to the narrative was an advantage. We first saw the Creature meeting Agatha, frightened and vulnerable but still with goodness in him, and we see him learn and grow. This plants our empathy firmly with the Creature later when Frankenstein, phenomenally thick in some respects, cycles through various European languages because it simply hasn’t occurred to him that his creation has not yet been taught to speak.
★★★★ - KINGDOM FOR A STAGE
I never really enjoyed Frankenstein, the book by Mary Shelley; I struggled with the character of Dr Frankenstein, finding him a bit wet. So I was interested to see if this intriguing working of the classic horror would change my mind.
This version by Ross McGregor has the novel feature of intertwining the story of Mary Shelley’s herself in to the play, in parallel with the original narrative. And I must say that it worked excellently, writes Matt Baker…
Sharing the world of the author, and her trials and tribulations, made me feel more attached to the characters in the original piece. The direction needed to balance the different narratives in the play was outstanding and showed real quality from Ross McGregor.
Despite so much going on it never felt lost or overwhelmed. The depiction of the monster was spot on and didn’t in anyway descend in to cliché, whilst at the same time keeping a marvellous gothic touch.
There was, too, a nice equilibrium between pathos and menace that gave real depth to the performance.
As the play closed with its tragic end the audience gave generous applause and there was a real sense of appreciation for a great night. Definitely worth a trip down to Brockley for.