Jekyll and Hyde – Flipping the Bird & Red Shift @ Maltings Art Centre, 25 July 2013 (and at the Assembly Roxy Downstairs from 31 July to 25 August 2013)
The Edinburgh preview trail winds its way onto St Albans and possibly the first time visiting a town that so defiantly tries to hide its arts centre away from anyone with the slightest interest in culture (and for anyone going you can find it in the Mall, located on the 2nd floor between the library and the car park). Still this is not the time for London snobbery even if the venue is rather unbecoming of one of the grandest of Victorian gothic horrors.
On the menu was Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde; an endlessly adaptable work and if the creation doesn’t quite sit in popular consciousness as easily as his natural bed-fellows, Dracula and Frankenstein, then the suggestion is that it is because in Jekyll/Hyde Stevenson created a horror that lives as much in our own mind as in our external experiences.
Jekyll & Hyde might be prefigured by James Hogg’s too oft-forgotten, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but Stevenson’s work remains the more relevant because it strips out much of the religion and leavesbehind something that could have come straight out of a Freudian handbook. The concept continues to have a huge influence in one of the most lasting forms of pulp fiction; the comic book. Hulk and Two-Face are two characters centred around the Jekyll/Hyde idea but the idea of a character leading a duel-existence is a fundamental to the mythos of the comic book universe.
The question for any company is how you add something fresh to the equation; Flipping the Bird and Red Shift have approached the task by drafting in Jonathan Holloway to adapt it for the stage and have placed gender identity centre stage. It is a neat way to breathe life into a well-known story, meaning that fun can be had with Victorian gender politics and more importantly allowing a relationship to develop between Utterson and Jekyll that transforms the traditional end of the story.
The production is bolstered by the addition of an onstage music accompaniment from the narrator and the potential buyer of the story. If the style is overly reminiscent of The Tiger Lillies accompaniment to the hugely influential ‘junk opera’ Shockheaded Peter, the originality of the music and the coherence it has with the narrative means that it refuses to disappoint and is an effective way to work through scene transitions.
The most difficult element of attempting Jekyll & Hyde is the necessity to write in the gothic horror style. It is one of the most difficult genres to convince in because it must walk a tightrope between melodrama and pastiche. The decision must be made to either embrace the pastiche or attempt to write strongly enough to avoid it.
Holloway’s script broadly plays it straight down the line but there are one or two moments where it is hard not to be reminded of misfiring skits from That Mitchell and Webb Show; one gruesome moment that may be on the cutting room floor by the time Edinburgh calls was some particularly vividly descriptive language as Jekyll/Hyde outlines her night time proclivities to Utterson. It is hard not to be left with the impression that Roget’s Thesaurus probably got as good a workout as Jekyll/Hyde that evening.
However the script is helped along by the production being blessed by a trio of strong performances. Elliot Rennie’s Narrator is an appealingly oddball persona and an unself-conscious absurdity helped maintain the energy when things may otherwise have flagged. He had a suitably disquieting quality that provided a genuinely unsettling air of trepidation to proceedings.
The characters of Utterson and Enfield were nailed down and the confidence in the actors stopped the risk of drama tipping into melodrama whilst maintaining a strong dynamism to their relationship. Enfield in particular seemed comfortable with the dialogue and of the cast was the most at ease in melding and shaping the script into something alive.
Special mention must also go to Joanna Scotcher’s set which is a thing of beauty and brimming full of wonderful ideas. With budgets stripped to the bone and spaces smaller than a thimble, Edinburgh is akin to a playground for innovative set designers. The light box effect was a clever solution to the problem of space constraints and worked perfectly to place otherwise dislocated scenes. Lawrence Osborne’s music was also a strong addition. It was integrated naturally into the action and gave the show a cabaret feel that seemed in keeping with the gothic nature of the show.
Some refinement is needed to ensure that the show is clear whether it wants to play it broadly straight with comedic elements or be seen as a straight-up pastiche. As a result Jekyll and Hyde may not be the strongest show to go to Edinburgh but it is fun, a little different and based on a well-known text; the kind of show that should be able to find a willing and engaged audience in the festival crowd.