Frankenstein  – Sutton House, London

Writer and Director: Katherine Armitage

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

At the moment there are more Frankensteins in London than you can shake a stick at. Last week Burn Bright Theatre’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley story played at The London Horror Festival while a beatbox Frankenstein opens at The Battersea Arts Centre this week. Sutton House’s version may lack a certain level of sophistication, but it certainly delivers in atmosphere.

Sutton House, managed by The National Trust, was once a Tudor country home, but changed over time as the city engulfed it: it’s located in the heart of Hackney. With a wood-panelled dining hall, and an elegant interior courtyard, Sutton House is the perfect backdrop for a site-specific edition of the world’s most famous horror story. Its historic rooms are transformed into bloody laboratories and haunted playrooms where strange puppets meet grisly ends.

Unfortunately, Katherine Armitage’s adaptation, which seeks to restore female characters to Shelley’s story, doesn’t live up to the atmospheric setting. Although it’s set in the 1980s, when a group of artists squatted in the building, there is a Victorian hamminess to the proceedings. Jennifer Tyler’s Elizabeth, the wife of Dr Frankenstein, is straight out of a Wilkie Collins’ novel, meek and obedient. Frankenstein’s monster is refigured here as a woman, but in her white outfit she’s more reminiscent of The Woman in White. The 80s’ time period allows many rooms to be lit by mini anglepoise lamps, and there’s plenty of talk about the police being called, but apart from Frankenstein’s friend Henry, who has attached some modern day badges to his jacket, all the characters are dressed for the 19thcentury.

Added to this confusion are the first two scenes where Tea Break Theatre set out their version, but it takes a while to work out who is connected to whom. Of course, we have Frankenstein and his wife, but we also have Henry, and Justine – sometimes called Jay – who appears to be a part-time molecular chemist when she’s not looking after Frankenstein’s younger brother. Dressed in trousers and adopting a more masculine air there are flashes of Marian from The Woman in White, or even Mina from Dracula. However, despite the updates Armitage takes few liberties with Shelley’s original text.

One of Armitage’s new themes is that of mothers, and here Frankenstein creates a creature to replace his mother, and the scene in which the monster is brought to life is genuinely chilling, and Frankenstein’s lab smells quite nicely of TCP. Equally unsettling is the way the monster – played a little too earnestly by Molly Small – glides past doors or outside windows, only glimpsed by some of the audience, who for the first half, at least, is separated into four groups. With each section assigned a colour, it’s fun following a single actor around the rooms of the eerily lit building, listening to the shouts and screams happening in neighbouring rooms, and it doesn’t affect the narrative at all.

But despite the fun and the occasional shock, the acting remains too fervent to really make a connection and some scenes are played at a stolid pace. Jeff Scott tries hard with his dazed Frankenstein, but Chris Dobson has a more difficult time with the 80s’ squatter and his role of Henry. The latter’s place in the story seems underwritten, while the apathy of Katy Helps’s Justine seems odd if this is meant to be set in the 80s. It may have been a better move to keep the story within its original time period, but it is always good to hear the icy opening of Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon. This Frankenstein is creepy, but, like the monster itself, it needs a little more surgery.

Runs until 3 November 2018 | Image: John Wilson 

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