Laura Turner is a playwright well-known for bringing her own take on classic tales from literature. Here, she re-animates Mary Shelley's classic gothic horror story, Frankenstein. This is no rehash of the tale we have seen before. Here, Turner leads The Asylum Players in the titular role, performing a gender-swap crucial to the structure of. this version of the play. Here, the creature's creator, Victor Frankenstein becomes Victoria Frankenstein and we see a tale that talks about the erasure of women of note throughout history, the injustice of Victorian society seeking to repress women and their desire to be the equal of, or superior to, many men less deserving of note.
We meet Turner's Frankenstein during a lecture in which she enthuses about her work and we realise that Victoria Frankenstein is a driven, obsessive genius on the brink of a discovery that could change life forever and we are introduced to those in her social and professional circle. Jerry Smith is the urbane and erudite Professor Lavenza. A widower on the brink of retirement who struggles to raise his headstrong daughter Elizabeth, played by Lucy Sherree Cooper.
We also meet friend and colleague, exasperated by Victoria's drive, Henry Clerval portrayed as earnest and yet somewhat in awe of his intellectual superior, by Simon Payne. Karen Hunter is the imperious academic, Doctor Chiltern. Chiltern rightly sees the danger in Frankenstein portraying her course of study and warns her of its impending danger, only to be ignored. A guest at the Professor's retirement party, a cameo appearance by Director Steve Gillard as Captain Walton, grows in significance as the action progresses and we also meet the maid Mary played by Bobbie Wilson, Frankenstein's long-time friend Justine (Emily Hodgson) and and Victoria's younger sister Winifred (Sophia Knowles), and the blind woman Agatha portrayed by Catherine Brown.
Of course, the crucial performance that will intrigue audiences is that of Sam Mant as the Creature. I will not show the Creature's full look in the review and will only comment obliquely on his role within the production, to avoid spoiling the show for audiences but Mant is magnificent as the hulking man-child striving to walk, talk and learn throughout the play. He brings across the wide-eyed innocence of the Creature as a victim magnificently and gives the performance of the night for me.
People say that knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein is the scientist ,not the monster. But understanding is realising that Frankenstein is the monster, not the Creature. This play brings that concepts out effortlessly. Laura Turner's Frankenstein is an anti-hero in many ways. She is the one who meddles with science and plays God and seeks only the advancement of science, regardless of cost and consequence initially.
Turner barely leaves the stage and delivers a performance on an epic scale, no doubt rueing the fact that she gave the main character the vast majority of the lines, to a point where she has little time to breathe between scenes. It is an intense performance requiring great stamina and focus and will impress audiences with its drive and commitment and is a stunning contrast to seeing Turner as Cathy in Wuthering Heights recently, or as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. Turner is a versatile actress who suits period drama well.
Her romance with Lucy Sheree Cooper's Elizabeth is an interesting twist on the original story, in a subplot that departs from Shelley's original tale. Cooper's Elizabeth is far from the winsome love interest and plays the role as a smart, intelligent woman consistently under-rated and under-valued by the men in her life. She knows what she wants and strives to achieve it too, even if it means departing from society's norms and expectations.
The story generally will be familiar to those who have read the book but some judicious cuts have been made for the staging here and between them, Turner and Gillard make intelligent choices when deciding how to stage certain controversial scenes from the original, to avoid unnecessary triggers and distress generally.
The gender switch is employed to good effect in communicating the notion that as woman give birth they perhaps "create life" and thus, it should not be perceived as "alien" when Victoria seeks to do so artificially. I was slightly disappointed to see the role of De Lacey, the blind man who the creature encounters upon his initial escape gender-swapped. There was nothing wrong in Catherine Brown's portrayal, she delivers exactly as you would hope she would but the role is dear to me having previously played the role myself and the scenes between De Lacy and the Creature are among my favourite in the book. I fully understand the need to condense those scenes for the sake of the on stage narrative here, but I regret their omission regardless.
I cannot stress how well I feel Sam Mant plays the unfortunate, unintentional brutality of the Creature and he succeeds in presenting the journey from wobbling toddler in an adult's huge frame through to the self-educated Creature with the heart and mind of a poet. His make-up by Olive Helm is wonderful and his commitment to the physical requirements of the role is highly admirable too.
So what can audience's expect seeing Laura Turner's Frankenstein? I suggest that rather than shocking horror, you will be drawn into a world of intrigue, as the intensity builds until it become suffocating. Allegiances and sympathies will shift and the injustices heaped upon women in Victorian society will repel the forward thinkers of today.
This version of the story is very long, but it draws you in, and the central performances have an intensity worthy of the tale which brings the gothic horror to the fore. Audiences are in for an early Halloween treat this year.
Andy Evans 26 October 2023