April De Angelis’ Frankenstein: “This adaptation was intended to frighten”

Celebrating the bicentenary anniversary of Mary Shelley’s creation, the Royal Exchange Theatre has resurrected the great Frankenstein and his creation.

For those unfamiliar with the classic, the play opens with Captain Walton (Ryan Gage) writing to his worried sister during his expedition North. Here he tells her of his travels, of his crew, and for his wish for a friend. Desolate and close to death, Victor Frankenstein is found and hauled upon the ship where he tells Captain Walton of the blood on his hands, and his creation. 

In this adaptation Shane Zaza is Frankenstein with Harry Attwell as his monster. The two work well together. Zaza is well-presented, and small in stature and frame; and his creation, Attwell, stands tall and strong, misshapen and monstrous, casting a shadow across his doomed creator. A play often described as an icon of the horror genre, Director Matthew Xia had a big job on his hands with Frankenstein. Xia told the Manchester Evening News that he believes “it’s the right time for a retelling of Frankenstein,” adding, “[the] play always gets remounted when the world is in a time of crisis… I’m interested in how society makes monsters and how society decides what a monster is.” This motif was certainly evident throughout the play. 

There is a beautiful symmetry that plays out in April De Angelis’ adaptation. We are welcomed by Captain Walton who is in desperate search of a friend, only to be confronted with the creature whose hell-bent fury and revenge is only fuelled by his despair and isolation.

Ben Stones delivers a stellar job of the set and costume design. Responsible for creating the creature, interpreting a creature immortalised in the pages of literature and on the big screen, he does not fall short of the challenge. The creature’s skin is bulbous, distorted and leatherlike, its eyes dull and glazed, and with scars lacing the figure. Similarly, his work on the set resembles the iconic laboratory, though nightmarish qualities leak into the set and its players. Puppetry and porcelain masks, inhabitants watched from afar moving like tin dolls, surround-sound in the round: everything points to the suggestion that this adaptation was intended to frighten. 

Ryan Gage and Harry Attwell give standout performances in their roles. Attwell perfectly depicts a creature tormented and suffering, whilst you can physically see the despair Gage projects throughout the narrative as his once new-found friend tells his tale. They gave truly brilliant deliveries which never ceased. However, unfortunately, suspense or fright cast over the audience is soon evaporated by more than the occasional fluffed line. Due to this, and despite the incredibly high standard of performance and craftsmanship, I didn’t feel myself to be completely gripped and engrossed.

Ultimately, does this make for frightening live theatre? With prolonged blackouts and classic horror sound design, it sets out to be but falls slightly short of the mark.

Catch Frankenstein at the Royal Exchange before the tour ends on 14th April.