When the West End Whingers was created on a metaphorical slab in Soho’s White Horse hostelry some five years ago there were no very, very frightening thunderbolts or lightening or power surges blacking out the West End and no mobs of angry gay villagers.
Indeed their genesis was a much duller affair than even might be inferred from their prose.
Less prosaic, however, was the extraordinary dream that Phil had recently when he drifted off on the banks of the Queen Mother Reservoir just off the M4, the result of some very Swiss cheese. In it he was married to the poetess Pam Ayres and a Gothic Dr Philistein (or possibly Philistine) was giving life to the Andrew known and loved today. The creature was assembled from any detritus Philistein could lay his hands on scavenged from skips around the Walworth Road with the occasional body part thrown in, he linked up his monstrous achievement to Vinopolis and waited impatiently for some inclement weather.
But interestingly even Phil’s unleashed, gratinated Gothic dreams could not compete with the vision that director Danny Boyle and designer Mark Tildesley have conjured up at the National Theatre for Nick Dear‘s version of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein. For it does look rather splendid.
But first we had a dilemma. The theatre gods are always looking for new ways to make theatre-going more complicated and for reasons that otherwise elude us Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature. Although there is a schedule to let you know who is playing what and when, this does not extend to previews. For no particular reason other than that to us it seemed the right way round, we were hoping to see Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and JLM as The Creature.
Nick Dear picks up Mary Shelley’s tale at the “birth” of The Creature (Miller as it turned out) who emerges naked as the day he was born (oh, wait) through what seemed to be the skin of a Kodo drum. He’s heavily scarred where his body parts have been sloppily stitched together (how tidy of Danny Boyle to follow Greenland edicts and find a way of recycling James Franco’s arm); someone really should buy Frankenstein a subscription to Sewing World.
This, butt naked, umm, opening makes Daniel Radcliffe’s nude scene in Equus look like mere flashing. From his second row seat Andrew didn’t know where to fix his gaze. Bare feet on stage! How on earth would he get through it all?
But worse was to come. The Creature writhed around on the floor without dialogue for 15 minutes, learning to crawl and to stand and to run before experiencing different sensations for the first time: lust, pain, food, water and cold. Exposed feet and mime! It really shouldn’t work but it did and Phil was even a tad disappointed when people began to speak.
Miller pulled it off (the coup) admirably in spite of the major obstacle that it is difficult to credit the horrified reactions of the people he encounters because – ham-fisted cross-stiching aside – he looks rather fit, buff and, yes, even comely. Frankly Andrew was a tiny bit jealous.
Tildesley’s design uses the Olivier to its full advantage – often sparingly, always imaginatively and even calling out of retirement the *drum roll* drum revolve! Hoorah! The set spreads into the stalls whose walls are papier-mâchéd to within an inch of their life. A bell hangs over the audience and hundreds of lights (Bruno Poet) dangle from a silver wedge of brie. Perhaps mindful of the energy used to operate the revolve the lights are turned on full blast only intermittently and when they do you experience a wave of overhead heat. Phil made a mental note: cancel that appointment at the tanning salon. Andrew suddenly had an insight into how it must feel to be a fried egg on the breakfast buffet at Debenham’s cafeteria. But there was no time to dwell on this. For no particular reason a “train” cames out into the stalls emitting blasts of steam. Andrew was on an aisle seat, took the full blast and made a mental note to cancel his appointment to have his right ear syringed.
Karl Johnson plays the blind man impressively blind as The Creature’s Henry Higgins who teaches him to talk and introducing him to the works of Milton (Dr Philistein gave up with his own special creation at this point). Like the Elephant Man The Creature wants to be accepted in society. Will quoting chunks of Paradise Lost help? Not in the Whingers’ circles. But then appropriately the dateless Whingers saw this on Valentine’s Day having no other calls on their time.
Victor and his creation share little stage time until half way through the play’s snappy 1hour 50 minutes running time. The crux of Dear’s version is the relationship between them and Phil thought it very effective: a very peculiar and fine bromance. Phil liked the music by Underworld so much that he would have bought the CD.
There are two consecutive press nights next week so critics will be able to go and see this Frankenstein with knobs on and decide which of Ben & Jonny’s chunky monkeys is the more impressive. Mark Shenton is going to have his work cut out updating his Willies I Have Witnessed thesis. There is also a chance for someone who sits in the other side of the stalls, as it were, (perhaps Charles “Pure Theatrical Viagra” Spencer) to begin a corresponding opus entitled Glimpses I Have Snatched (or Snatches I Have Glimpsed) thanks to a nude scene featuring Andreea Padurariu as the female creature although we warn any would-be chuff-archivists that this may actually have been a prosthetic pudendum (but we are not experts).
It is a shame that the National don’t have more faith in their own creation. Andrew was sent an email by the theatre a few days before our visit stating: “Please note that the production will start promptly at 7.30pm (it didn’t). The opening scene is not to be missed” suggesting that the rest of the show is, perhaps, missable. Danton’s Death in reverse if you will. We know lots of people who have been to see this show and HATED it, mostly for the script and while it’s true that the role of Victor Frankenstein is so under-written as to be almost non-existent we were happy to find ourselves caught up in the Creature’s picaresque journey. There was even talk of “human condition” over a drink. Imagine.
1. Of course, much of the suspense had been eliminated because much of the script was dropped on us from a great height when we saw Greenland where we also got a copy of a memo with updates on projects involving Michael Frayn, Rupert Goold, Matt Charman, Yasmina Reza, Catherine Johnson and Joe Penhall which was quite fascinating but (as we are not Whingileaks) we are far too discreet to share.
2. We’re pleased to report that rumours that the National are selling a smoking green cocktail called The Experiment proved to be true – a melon liqueur, lemon water, twist of lime concoction with a capsule popped in to create the effect. It’s rather impressive. There’s also a Bloody Mary Shelley on sale, now that really made us smile. But really, what idiots would shell out £5.75 for a novelty drink?