Frankenstein: Showcasing the Dramatic Power of Puppetry

Thursday 2nd February, 2017, at Harrogate Theatre.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I loosely liken this production from Blackeyed Theatre to watching the metamorphosis of a butterfly, with the first act being the caterpillar to chrysalis and the second being the transformed butterfly. It’s very apt for this analogy to have come to mind of course; Frankenstein does follow the tale of a man slowly but persistently learning how to create a unique creature. The disparity here being that caterpillars begin as aesthetically drab before becoming a beautiful butterfly, while Frankenstein’s monster begins as a composite of healthy parts before transforming into a grotesque yellowing abomination.

I make the comparison to this production because for me, the first act felt overly long with too much padding early on while the second act was nothing short of thoroughly gripping. With the rise of the curtain post-interval, the production seemed to really come to life – the ferocious, emotionally charged stand-offs between man and monster were absolutely the pinnacle of this production for me. From a lapse in visual spectacle early on to a compelling display of skilful puppetry for almost the entirety of the second act, it was a feast for the senses. I realise that Shelley’s novel does have this same quality but I think the stage adaptation could have remedied some of the winding early narrative with some visual variety.

The narrative in this production is framed around Victor being hauled on board a stuck ship (with a simple wooden mast-like structure up stage providing a reminder of this framework throughout), where he tells his tale of creating, abandoning and hunting an abomination of his own creation. He proceeds to flash back to each key moment leading to the present until the full tale is revealed and the finale takes place. Having a minimal set with no backdrop but black nothingness is something I can definitely respect, but this production in particular needed more in the early stages when the performance fell to periods of static narration (lively and vehement narration, but static nonetheless). This is a minimal rather than fatal flaw however; the first act swiftly improved before closing on a captivating glimpse of their fantastic puppet of Frankenstein’s monster- paving the way very nicely to a stellar ‘butterfly’ of a second act.

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Victor Frankenstein’s permanent state of charged anxiety is impressively brought into being by the talented Ben Warwick; his portrayal of Frankenstein’s growing psychosis and his self-destruction brought about by driving himself to distraction is never over-played. His nervous energy never wavers as he flits between the many stages leading to Frankenstein’s inevitable cataclysmic end and this production is very lucky to benefit from such a robust performer in their leading role. Warwick carries the majority of this production on his shoulders, narrating his journey from ambition to destruction under clever narrative decisions from director Eliot Giuralarocca.

It has to be said that Blackeyed Theatre’s Monster is not frightening. Holding back when producing a creature described in such grotesque terms is a wise decision from creator  Yvonne Stone – particularly as attempts to capture the real extent of his hideousness could very easily make him ineffectual. What they have created instead is a puppet of stature just beyond human proportion, adorned with the scars of his creation and the ridges of prominent muscle tissue, but he also remains somewhat of a blank canvas in terms of being entirely white and lacking any heavy-handed attempts to portray his other-ness (I won’t include a picture, because I think the reveal is worth seeing in the flesh so to speak!) Creating Shelley’s monster in this way allows the company to humanise him at all the right moments, and it works brilliantly. The very best thing about this production for me is their ability to bring to life a famous, prominent literary creation in a way which feels fresh. They capture his heartbreak and his indignity in ways which could melt the coldest of hearts and their physical manipulations made him both captivating and credible in that commanding way that puppets can achieve only when handled with skill and precision.

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Alongside his strengths as a multi-roller in this production, Louis Labovitch tears at the heartstrings as the voice of Frankenstein’s monster. His performance, along with the careful, perceptive puppetry, made this one of the best examples of puppetry that I’ve seen in recent years. He gave the monster passion and soul, depicting his agonising rejection and abandonment with a voice full of nuance and power. I was absolutely entranced by the monster as he told his tale of woe and I remain wholly impressed by the way Labovitch’s voice embodied that tale. Impressive. The cast as a whole were full of conviction and there were great performances from a deft multi- rolling Max Gallagher and Ashley Sean-Cook made his mark later in the production as he came face to face with the monster. Lara Colin embodied the submissive woman archetype very nicely and despite an irksome costuming error of an incongruous visible zip throughout, I was impressed with the way she and the cast brought this dated yet timeless classic to the stage. They also notably provided live percussion accompaniment to the action, which was a simple yet powerful way to add tension, often creating atmosphere so subtly that I was only aware of it as a single note was fading away.

Key strengths in this production are the performances of the multi-talented cast, the monster, and its ability to present Shelley’s didactic messages with authenticity (it
also reminded me just how brilliant a writer she was- so much so that I’m now re-reading the novel). This production captures the majesty of Shelley’s eloquent writing and messages in an atmospheric, powerful performance and I definitely recommend it despite my gripes about the first act – I think it’s particularly a must-see for puppetry admirers.

Image credits: Blackeyed Theatre

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