Halloween season often brings out the classic and well-known horror stories and they don’t come much better known than Mary Shelly’s 200-year-old story of Victor Frankenstein and his creature. This presents a challenge in coming up with a fresh or interesting way of telling the tale and Tea Break Theatre have certainly created something different with their immersive production in the National Trust’s Sutton House.
The audience begins in sat on the floor in a large hall as the cast, as hosts in a 1980s squat, suggest sharing stories in the creepy and atmospheric house, an obvious parallel to the origin of the Frankenstein novel. As they begin to tell the story of a dream they all shared they move from narrators to the characters and the action really begins.
The audience has been divided into four groups with different coloured wrist bands and are instructed to follow the character carrying a matching cloth, or all groups would follow a someone with white cloth. In the first act the audience is moved around the house to meet the family before heading to Victor’s (Jeff Scott) lab to witness the birth of the creature (Molly Small). From there the groups are separated to follow Justine (Katy Helps), Henry (Chris Dobson) or Elizabeth (Jennifer Tyler) before being brought back together in the courtyard of the finale of the act. William, Victor’s young brother, is a puppet voiced by Dobson and manoeuvred by the rest of the cast. In the second act the audience is kept together but again moved around the house for each scene.
This approach creates some difficulties for writer/director Katherine Armitage. The story has to be limited to the family and the single house so there are no angry villagers to traumatise the creature or final chase across the ice of the north pole. However, the script is sharp, with elements of the original text mixed with a modernised version.
There is also a logistical issue about moving thirty people around the narrow corridors and staircases of the house, creating quite long delays between scenes. They also need to rely on the audience to pay sufficient attention to where they are supposed to be at any given moment in time and there were lots of nervous looks and uncertainty. There is also a sense that having followed one element of the story you would miss out on the other strands that might have been more interesting. There was certainly a lot of comparing notes at the interval.
The young cast all do well but Molly Small is excellent as the Creature, certainly no less frightening or intimidating because she is a woman. Her confrontation with Victor at the beginning of the second act in particularly well handled. Her creature is self-aware but her anger is subtle and manipulative. Her venom is spat out rather than shouted and her subtle portrayal carries the second act.
Jeff Scott starts well as the distracted genius but is best once Victor has been driven mad by grief and guilt. Chris Dobson gets what little humour is included as the sensitive writer Henry, whilst Katy Helps tends towards a stereotype as the austere and serious Justine. Jennifer Tyler makes the best of the least interesting character, the maternal Elizabeth, but as the more abusive elements of her relationship with Victor emerges there was clearly more depth to the performance.
The creature make-up by Ana Casquinha is effective and works well in contrast to the tatty white wedding dress she wears. The low-level lighting creates shadows and darkness that hugely adds to the creepy atmosphere but the mish-mash of design and costume leaves us outside of any particular time and place. The slightly bizarre ending leaves the audience a little bit dazed and confused but then that is in keeping with the overall approach.
Despite the limitations of the immersive approach the sense history of the house helps create a unique atmosphere that adds to the drama and makes this an enjoyable production for those who enjoy their Halloween treats but don’t mind spending an evening on their feet.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: John Wilson