Following on from Frankenstein, Blackeyed Theatre are back on the road with another 19th century gothic classic – an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is touring across the country, but currently finds itself at Greenwich Theatre.
The story is seen through the eyes of lawyer Gabriel John Utterson, who narrates significant portions of the play. Brilliant scientist Dr Henry Jekyll is convinced there is a way of chemically investigating what happens in a sentient organism’s brain, and so performs trial after trial on rats and smallpox victims to try and ‘split’ the mind – when this continually proves unsuccessful, he resorts to experimenting on himself. This enables him to transform into the infamous Mr Edward Hyde, a horrifying but almost unrecognisable version of himself that embraces violence and chaos. Before long, the equilibrium seems to shift within him, instead needing his potion to be able to turn back into Jekyll. Is the good doctor lost forever?
Nick Lane has adapted the tale for the stage, and in doing so has expanded on the narrow plot of the original novella. It seems to take quite a while for us to be introduced to Mr Hyde, however using this time to show Jekyll’s attempts to investigate scientifically excellently lays the foundations for his last resort course of action – as well as heightening the anticipation somewhat. Lane also introduces a main female character to the plot: Irish music hall singer Eleanor, who marries Jekyll’s colleague Hastings Lanyon, but ends up assisting Jekyll after she becomes fascinated with his work. This does, almost inevitably, end up as a romantic subplot, but is definitely a good addition – both in terms of extending the story and also for the casting side of things. The story is an interesting one to keep telling, as the debate between ethics and scientific progress is ever present in society; “the greater good” is increasingly doubted by certain groups.
Upon entering the auditorium you are greeted with a striking image. Victoria Spearing’s wooden furniture set is backlit in red, immediately suggestive of history and danger. Simplicity is the key, as the story speaks for itself rather than needing anything too elaborate going on around it. Claire Childs’ lighting design is evocative throughout, casting shadows and painting the set in vivid hues. Music also adds to the atmosphere, with Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre sitting alongside Tristan Parkes’ own compositions – the build-up to Jekyll taking the potion for the first time is a definite highlight.
Blackeyed Theatre once again work wonders with a small ensemble, in part thanks to Naomi Gibbs’ excellent costume designs. Zach Lee is authoritative as the lawyer Utterson, and Ashley Sean-Cook a quite typical Victorian man – content to live in society’s expectations and asking the same of his new wife. Paige Round is wonderfully warm as Eleanor, and you easily empathise with her feeling of claustrophobia within her marriage and as a woman in the 1800s.
Happily, this production sees Jekyll and Hyde played by the same actor (it has been known for the two personae to be cast separately) – this makes things more interesting for the audience, and must be a thrilling challenge for whoever takes on the task. In this production it is Bristol Old Vic Theatre School-trained Jack Bannell. His portrayals of the two separate characters are so well-defined that he can simply walk a few steps and visibly change from Hyde to Jekyll within a split second. Mostly mild-mannered, amiable Jekyll walks with a cane and is slightly hunched over, whereas Hyde can walk freely and stealthily, speaking in a deep voice and with a wicked glint in his eye.
My verdict? A fantastic reinterpretation of a well-known gothic classic, designed and performed excellently – a thrill to watch.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde runs at Greenwich Theatre until 7 October 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website.