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London's Monster Hits!

TheaterMania reports on Frankenstein, The Heretic, Greenland, Season's Greetings, Company, and Clybourne Park. logo
Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein
(© Catherine Ashmore)
What a hotsy-totsy theatrical event is Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, now at the National Theatre. All stops have been pulled out by the Oscar-winning director and collaborators Mark Tildesley, who provides an ever-changing set, and Bruno Poet, who delivers a lighting set-up featuring a large, triangular, many-bulbed ceiling fixture.

That light-force is supposedly the source of the life-giving force to what's identified as "The Creature" -- here reimagined for the stage by Nick Dear in an existentialist mood, and played on alternate nights by Jonny Lee Miller or Benedict Cumberbatch, who also alternate as the Creature's creator, Victor Frankenstein.

As the story begins, the Creature tumbles from a throbbing womb resembling a large upright drum-head. Before finding his footing, he flips violently on the stage for several mesmerizing minutes. Once upright, the Creature sees his maker Frankenstein enter, observe the result of his compulsive handiwork and flee, horrified. Once on his own, the Creature is shunned by everyone he encounters until he stumbles into the hut of a blind man (Karl Johnson), who befriends him, teaches him to read and think and even commit John Milton's Paradise Lost to memory (and don't for a minute suppose that title isn't meant symbolically).

Hounded away, however, by the blind man's son Felix (Daniel Millar) and daughter-in-law Agatha (Lizzie Winkler), the Creature loses faith in human kindness and goes looking for Frankenstein, whom he coaxes into building a female companion. Frankenstein, fearing the potential trouble the synthetic couple might foment, destroys the woman, after which the Creature wreaks revenge involving Frankenstein's neglected and patient fiancee Elizabeth (Naomie Harris, who stands out among the supporting cast).

Into this economic yet operatic play, the enterprising Boyle puts the seminal tale of the problems arising when man takes on Mother Nature. As the saga unfolds -- with a few of its melodramatic turns a tad on the kitschy side -- its subliminal message comes across that human nature, divided as it is between good and evil instincts, continues forever locked in unresolved internal battle. Moreover, because the implication here is that Frankenstein and his Creature are two halves of one personality -- the id and the superego warring for control of the ego -- the casting of Miller and Cumberbatch in both roles underlines the drama's basic point. Fortunately, Miller, basically a warm actor, and Cumberbatch, essentially a cool actor, each go far towards conveying both the Creature's thwarted goodness and Frankenstein's blind devotion to his career.

In Richard Bean's drama, The Heretic, now at the Royal Court, the always ineffably real Juliet Stevenson plays Dr. Diane Cassell, a scientist who is not convinced that the planet is in as much peril as others would have her believe. Brilliant at her scientific and teaching obligations, Diane is having more trouble at home with rebellious, anorexic daughter Phoebe (Lydia Wilson) and at the office with ex-lover and department head Kevin Maloney (James Fleet), who hasn't yet dropped his amorous notions and who ultimately cans Diane for her sharp edges. While Bean keeps his eye on the play's dramatic purpose for the first act, it ultimately becomes clear that he's unsure whether he is writing a serious drama, a romantic comedy, or a mother-daughter confrontation.

Neil Stuke, Oliver Chris, and Jenna Russell
in Season's Greetings
(© Catherine Ashmore)
A less successful work on the same subject is Greenland, at the National, which has been tacked together by playwrights Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner, and Jack Thorne from interviews they did on global warming. Their output -- which is really a lecture on the highly complex and controversial issue that the creators have tried to disguise by putting the pro-and-con arguments in the mouths of running characters -- is nonetheless given a busy-busy multi-media treatment by director Bijan Sheibani.

Also on hand in London these days are two revivals that provide endless pleasure. Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings, also at the National, looks at how a family deals one way or another over the Christmas holiday with their pronounced dysfunctions. Director Marianne Elliott knows that people are funny, but she also realizes, perhaps even more trenchantly, that their demons are unrelentingly persistent. The melancholy mixture is brought to life by a cast of nine worthy actors.

At the Southwark Playhouse, there's a revival of Company that will warm the hearts of many Stephen Sondheim fans -- at least once they can forget the first minutes when director Joe Fredericks can't resist updating the piece by having perennial bachelor Bobby (a gritty voiced Rupert Young) listening to Rihanna blasting on his radio. However, once Fredericks puts his ensemble completely in tune with the work -- about how Bobby begins examining his drifting life -- the production is a reminder of how great this seminal musical can be.

Finally, the Royal Court's mounting of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, now at West End's Wyndham Theatre, deserves every word of praise that has been heaped so lavishly on it. Directed by Royal Court artistic head Dominic Cooke, and featuring a cast headed by hilarious and heartbreaking Sophie Thompson, Norris' look at blatant and subtle racism in a small Chicago community is as disturbing here as it was stateside.

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