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Metamorphosis – The Old Rep, Birmingham

Directors: Matilda Dickinson and Adam Lloyd-James

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

As Thoreau might say, Gregor is leading a life of quiet desperation: he is stuck in a job he hates, working long hours for a demanding boss and with little appreciation. He does it to care for his family: his father who has been too unwell to work for some years and his mother who suffers badly with asthma, but mainly for his sister, Grete. He dreams of the time he can tell her he has saved enough money for her to attend the music conservatoire. How he must wish he could escape his humdrum world, how life might be without the shackles he has forged for himself.

And then, of course, he does.

In Kafka’s novella, when Gregor wakes on that fateful morning, he is described as having been transformed into a ‘monstrous vermin’. It’s not entirely clear what’s meant by that: is it, in fact, a physical transformation, is he some sort of massive insect, or is it more a shift of mental state? In any case, he becomes a recluse, rarely leaving his room as the changes progress.

In Beyond The Horizon’s adaptation, that question of the nature of Gregor’s metamorphosis is dealt with by ambiguity; while he certainly undergoes a physical transition over time from the clean-cut young man at the beginning to a pathetic rotten-food-eating, slimy creature, there are hints that his metamorphosis could be more internal. He quickly losses the ability – or maybe the inclination – to speak to his family and others but we remain privy to his inner dialogue as he tries to cope with his new circumstances.

And what of his family? They also undergo their own metamorphoses as they try to cope with caring for Gregor and his illness. Money becomes tight and the doctor is no help. All this happens as Grete is maturing from school girl to young woman – how will it affect her and her chances at the conservatoire? Maybe his family’s changes are more profound even than Gregor’s.

Adam Lloyd-James brings a fine physicality to Gregor on his descent. His metamorphosis is gradual, starting off as a few warty protuberances, gradually worsening over the first half until the full horror is revealed after the interval. Credit is due to make-up artist and designer, Sarah Luscombe, for devising stages that can be revealed without artificially impacting the flow of the narrative. By the end, Lloyd-James’ movements appear barely human as his body contorts into angular formations. Sometimes, especially when other characters are speaking, his inner dialogue is revealed via recordings; when alone it is typically spoken. The use of the recordings can be amusing – almost Perrin-esque when discussing the company chief executive with his true feelings booming out over the sound system, for example – but sometimes it’s a little intrusive and maybe a little ‘tricksy’.

Elli Ekers brings us the naïve Grete. At first, her love and admiration of her brother lead her to want to care for him, but his continuing deterioration stretches her beyond her breaking point. Her own metamorphosis feels sudden, even though Gregor’s inner dialogue has prepared us for it. But she seems to remain the schoolgirl so that her father’s comments at the end – that she has matured into a fine young woman – ring a bit hollow.

The remaining rôles feel a touch two-dimensional. Liz Hume’s Mother remains in denial and despair, while Mike Harley’s Father seems all bluster. As a result, we are not especially affected by the events at the play’s dénouement and the family’s reaction to them.

Every other minor rôle is played by Luke Hardwell. He brings us, among others, the bullying manager, the truly bizarre doctor and his airhead secretary, as well as the thoroughly unpleasant lodger, taken in to provide some more income. Hardwell ensures each rôle is well differentiated by costume and over-the-top physicality, but each becomes something of a caricature in order to support the only truly three-dimensional character of Gregor.

The set, lighting and soundscape complement one another well. The good-sized Old Rep stage allows for different areas – Gregor’s bedroom, the family dining room – to be set up while the lighting design focuses our attention nicely. However, this does have the feel of a more fringe-like production and one can’t help thinking a more intimate venue might have more impact, although that would undoubtedly bring its own challenges in terms of Gregor’s physical transformation.

This is certainly a competent and thought-provoking adaptation of Kafka’s novella. It allows us a window into Gregor’s world as it disintegrates around him, but that isn’t quite carried through enough to the supporting characters leading to us not investing emotionally as much as perhaps we could; nevertheless, there’s clear potential here, through Gregor’s allegory, for a hard-hitting message about mental health and our response to those affected.

Runs Until 2 March 2019 and on tour  | Image: Luke Taylor

Directors: Matilda Dickinson and Adam Lloyd-James Reviewer: Selwyn Knight As Thoreau might say, Gregor is leading a life of quiet desperation: he is stuck in a job he hates, working long hours for a demanding boss and with little appreciation. He does it to care for his family: his father who has been too unwell to work for some years and his mother who suffers badly with asthma, but mainly for his sister, Grete. He dreams of the time he can tell her he has saved enough money for her to attend the music conservatoire. How he must wish he…

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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