Writer: Eric Gracey
Director: Mark Webster
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Man has been a civilised creature for thousands of years and during that time has developed means to largely repress and govern our instinctive animal traits, but despite considerable evolution, these impulses have not been entirely eradicated. Robert Louis Stevenson recognised this when he wrote Jekyll &Hyde his novel about the duality of man’s nature and its struggle against confining social expectation. Eric Gracey has adapted this work for the Cockpit Theatre, set in the decadent “Jazz Age” of the 1930s, but focuses more on the consequences of Hyde’s actions than the struggle of the affected man.
The story is a familiar one but with a slight twist; Dr Jekyll is a respected scientist, engaged to the homely Connie, yet frequents a local jazz club where he meets the glamorous singer Rose. Nervous and reticent he shies away from her and returns to his secret experiments where he soon unleashes an inner demon and transforms into the despicable Mr Hyde who returns to claim Rose for himself. Soon her lack of genuine affection begins to grate and his temper has irreversible consequences for all.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that this version of Edward Hyde is an absolute rotter. Usually, he starts off slowly with a bit of carousing and staying out all night, but in this version of Jekyll &Hyde, the audience is shown in no uncertain terms that he is a murderer, domestic abuser and rapist – and that’s all in one scene before the interval. And, to immediately make the point that there have always been two sides to Henry Jekyll he is given a facial disfigurement that he covers up with a Phantom of the Opera-like half-mask. The reason for this is not explicitly mentioned in the script but given the 1930s setting it could easily be the result of a First World War injury thus explaining why none of the other characters seem to notice what would have been an unusual sight.
The 1930s setting is both a help and a hindrance to this production. The incorporation of familiar tunes by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, sung by the club girls, works really nicely to set the emotional pace of the scenes or to signal brewing tension – although when the company have simultaneous dialogue alongside it’s difficult to hear over the singing. But the setting also works against the story’s central argument about the repression of man’s true self, which was compounded by the more stifling nature of the Victorian age. By the 1930s arguably there were greater freedoms, so an idea of a socially contained Jekyll in an era famous for drinking and dancing doesn’t entirely ring true.
This production is also somewhat limited by its cabaret club setting, which for much of the time is irrelevant to the various houses in which scenes take place. So the audience is asked to imagine the club isn’t there for much of the time while characters mime the opening of non-existent front doors centre stage (even though there are two club entrances at the back that could double for them). However, it is beautifully realised in Mark Webster’s lavish club set design and feels a shame, given the space constraints, that the audience can’t be seated at the cabaret tables.
The performances are a mixed bag with a variety of regional accents despite supposedly being in London. Stuart Horobin works hardest with his distinct portrayals of Dr Lanyon, Poole and Inspector Newcome, while Oliver Hume draws a clear distinction between his Jekyll and Hyde, making his Jekyll increasingly harassed as events progress. Nicola Foxfield is in fine voice as Rose and shows her descent from confident chanteuse to frightened victim well.
It’s an interesting production with lots of potential but Gracey should consider cuts to repetitive early scenes that slow the action while Webster with his director’s hat on should look at pace, particularly after the second murder when things begin to drag. It does have menace at times and some violent scenes that bring drama, but its focus on the dangerous consequences of unrequited love is an interesting perspective, although perhaps not one for Jekyll &Hyde purists.
Runs until 6 February 2016 | Image: Nadeem Chugawuga