If ever there was a director/story combo that could showcase the breadth of what the National Theatre can do then it is Danny Boyle and Frankenstein.
From the moment you walk into the auditorium past a working bell pull, take in the set which has exploded outside the confines of the stage and the dramatic arrow shaped lighting rig made up hundreds of small bulbs pointing towards a frame, centre stage, of two drum skins between which you can see a human form, you know this is going to be spectacle if nothing else.
And so it is from the pulsing beat of Frankenstein’s creature's electrified heart and his first tentative attempts at standing to arctic-set denouement it is a visual and aural feast of effects.
There is rain, thunder, lightning, there is snow, there is grass, birds flying out of hay-ricks, a train, a boat…. And that is before we get onto what could be made into a demo video for revolving-stage manufacturers or indeed the creature's make up (in this performance played by Jonny Lee Miller.
But what of the play itself? Is it merely smoke screen and mirrors to disguise a weak adaptation?
Film adaptations have tended to focus on the scary, murderous monster element. Nick Dear, who has adapted the novel for the stage, has focused in on the original themes that Shelley explored and it makes for a compelling story.
Miller takes the opening scene solo, beautifully portraying the creature's first tentative steps outside the manufactured ‘womb’ in all his ugly, awkwardness. His has to win some sort of control over the body he has been given so that he can move around.
It is a long but totally gripping establishing scene with nothing more than the basest grunt uttered but you still get a sense of the creature's achievement. Miller retains certain tics and mannerisms from that first scene as if they were with him from 'birth' and he is unable to overcome them.
But what is truly great about his performance is that in midst of all the spectacle and make up and despite the terrible things the creature does, he succeeds in making him a victim and pitiable:
"Did I ask to be created? Did I ask to be made from some muck in a sack?"
But then this is the creature's play and it seems to be written as such. Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein appears briefly at the beginning and then not again for a least a quarter of the play.
Some of Frankenstein's lines jar and fail to convince as a consequence. You never really get a sense of what is going on in his head and the inner turmoil of the character in the novel is lost to aloofness and panic.
If I was to choose which way around I would cast the two roles it would be as I saw it. But I am intrigued at how it will work with the roles in reverse and will get a chance to judge next month.
As a package Frankenstein is superb and even if the alternating roles didn’t beg a second visit I’m sure I’d be off to see it again just so as to better take it all in.
So as a spectacle and for pure entertainment it gets five stars but as a play it gets four. On UpTheWestEnd.com it gets an aggregated 4.3/5
Check out the nifty trailer below