[Review:] FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER IS DRUNK…, Omnibus Theatre, London.
The full title of this performance is Frankenstein's Monster is Drunk and the Sheep Have All Jumped the Fences.
This is a most charming and energised performance from Big Telly Theatre Company. Quirky and unique, it aims to reimagine and recontextualise the character of Frankenstein’s Monster into a contemporary and fast-paced sphere whilst staying true to its gothic feel and old-world aesthetic.
Most endearing and characteristic of this performance are the imaginative storytelling devices the creatives have incorporated: the receding white sheet to represent snow melting away, the projection of the images of sheep onto the furniture, etc. This provides the performance with a positively laughable cheapness and amateurism that further humanises the gothic tale and demands a wonderful comedic reception.
This pairs well with the set-piece scraps, skeletal and seemingly incomplete, united in their wooden antique look and disorderliness and in their impressionistic, eclectic quality. In particular, the multifunctionality of the wardrobe is most impressive and creative — a table at the restaurant, a desk for the hotel reception, the front doors to the house, etc. In this way, this is a most multifunctional and intelligent set design by Ryan Dawson Laight.
However, this multifacetedness bleeds into a significant issue that persists throughout this performance. Whilst the creatives have managed to secure a unique, clear and coherent narrative voice and aesthetic identity for their performance, the depth of the material is most questionable.
First, text. We are presented with such a fast-paced plot that finer details that would humanise, deepen and add credibility to the performance often seem to be glossed over, and we move on from them as quickly as they were brought to our attention. Either this or they are overlooked completely. There is a great lack of stability and focus in this performance in this way. A good example of this is the bingo scene, which I shall return to later in a different context, wherein we see the Monster (Rhodri Lewis) and whom I shall henceforth refer to as the Monster’s Lover (Nicky Harley) shunned by the public, rejected and dismissed. We can see that the Monster and His Lover — though primarily the latter of the two — remain unaffected and resilient, standing their ground, but we fail to see how this really affects/strengthens them and their relationship; what type of toll, if any, it takes on them as individuals; why they tolerate it and what this reveals about their natures; etc. This also makes it harder to understand, being provided with no true explanation, why members of the public then start to rely on the Monster to find and rescue their children or to invite him around for dinner.
First an early-teenage girl, then a nurse, then a hotelier, once having also been the assistant to a carpenter, the Monster’s Lover has so many experiences and identities at such a young age that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly who she is, what background she comes from, and why she has had [or has had to have?] all these jobs. Is she unsure of the career path she wants, or is she merely doing what she can to get by? We are not made aware either way. Of course, we have her brief introduction, but this serves more as a quirky description of her qualities and external attributes — strength and boisterousness — as opposed to her psychology.
She is so destructive, formidable, untrusting and cold towards other people, who have [always?] shown her rejection and scorn, and yet she still wants to be a nurse and is fickle enough to let a complimenting photographer win her over into an affair? Consistency and coherency become huge issues in her character profile and development. Ironically, however, the content does seem more veered towards her than towards the Monster, which might also be worth noting — primarily for the former half of this performance.
As through the Monster’s Lover’s many identities, we seem to race through the settings and contexts of the play at such a pace that it could be easy for an audience member to get lost in the action, especially after the moment in the story where the couple become hoteliers. Because we are not permitted a great amount of time to linger on any significant details, to learn more about the characters and the particularised world they inhabit, content could be seen to be superficial, overall. Excessive spectacularities, such as the shadow puppet show and the various dance sequences consume valuable stage time that could be better spent on developing this content. These inclusions are simply too similar, especially these dance sequences, whose choreography has insufficient variation in order to justify their number.
Whilst some of these inclusions, such as the first dance sequence, in particular, depicting the falling in love and love-making of the Monster and His Lover, are lively, entertaining and humorous in themselves, combined with one another, they regurgitate all-too-familiar material. They teach us very little and are far too repetitive choreographically. The legibility of the choreography is also questionable in places, particularly during the longer dance sequences, such as ‘Putting on the Ritz’. This is without mentioning the lack of attention to detail: for example, hands are visible, shaking the back of the wardrobe and knocking the suitcases down, throughout the entirety of the early sex scene, and the shadow puppet scene may as well be removed altogether, given that these are simple, inanimate puppets that are simply lifted to the screen and bounced a few times before the puppet show comes to a premature end — any initial appeal becomes negligible, in this way.
This lack of refinement in these repeated elements further exacerbates their ineffectiveness. And none of this is particularly aided by the caricatural acting style upon which the performers, and clearly the director, Zoë Seaton, have decided.
Each performer has impeccable energy, conviction and credibility throughout. Rhodri Lewis and Nicky Harley have concretised their profiles well for the Monster and His Lover, and Chris Robinson and Vicky Allen, with emphasis on Allen, have established wonderful characterisations for the various passerby caricatures they represent — each of which is immediately identifiable.
However, all performers retain a certain caricaturality throughout, with actions, movements and idiosyncrasies being equally unvaried and too frequently re-presented. Allen’s guttural character voice and deliberate American accent, accompanied by a tilt of the head, a crooked, tight-lipped mouth and a stiff posture; Lewis’s full-body rigidity, wide-eyed glare, gormless expression and long, low-tone grunts…these caricaturisations, initially hilarious in themselves, become univocal and mundane in their repetition. I would urge the creatives to develop further specificity in their various characters, becoming aware of the ready trends with which they regularly approach each of their roles. Though wonderfully energised and confident performers, the consistency and univocity of these profiles allow for a shallow, uninteresting and, ultimately, dehumanised reading; it is difficult to completely and profoundly engage and respond to the work, for this reason.
Altogether, these elements I have addressed combine to produce an intensely caricatural and superficial play that feels incomplete and one-layered. Losing steam and depth before the halfway mark, this is a performance that actually has great potential — in its general content; in its sound, ghostly aesthetic; and in its rapid, fragmented and unpredictable narrative voice — and whose individual scenes are humorous and enticing, but that, overall, struggles to deepen, texturise and organise its material effectively. It feels that the creatives have placed greater emphasis on performance style and on establishing contexts and atmospheres than they have on the fundamentals: plot progression and character development, etc.
I wrote above that I would return to the bingo scene, and it is with this and the notion of the performance’s audience participation that I will conclude this review. Directly addressing the audience at the very beginning of the performance, entering from within the audience space, the audience-performer divide is immediately eliminated, our territory as audience members having been breached and our vulnerability and presence accentuated. Shortly after, we have the airplane scene, where Allen and Tobinson interact with us as stewards, and, soon into the performance, the bingo scene, which takes audience interaction into the realm of audience participation. This consistent metatheatricality is certainly decisive, establishing an equally consistent performance style. However, the manner in which we are asked to participate and the purpose of doing so must also be brought into question when we speak about such devices.
The bingo game is a distinct scene, forcing us out of the fast pace and chronology of the narrative and into an excitable self-awareness as we hope to win the game — or perhaps as we fear what participation comes next if we actually do, depending on the audience member type. In this way, a sense of competition, urgency and expectation, and another of self-awareness and exposedness take the place of engagement with the material. In other words, we lose sight of the world of the play and can only think about the mechanics of this game, our own presence and the presence of the competitors around us. To learn that we will simply be left with our bingo cards as the performance swiftly moves on and forgets bingo ever existed, this sense of competition, etc., can feel unrewarding and needless, especially as a similar scene and participation type does not arise again. In this bingo scene, we are also encouraged to ostracise the couple ourselves, given that we are participants in the bingo game, led by the game host, and prompted to laugh at the various remarks the game host makes. For these reasons, I am not sure how successful the bingo game is, although, of course, it is enjoyable in itself, or how successful audience participation is in this performance in general.
After this, we have no audience participation or even interaction whatsoever, and suddenly stylistic consistency becomes highly questionable. Why such extremity and intensity in the manner in which the audience are incorporated into the performance if this should have no purpose in the long run and should be soon forgotten? Additionally, whilst the cheap-feeling metatheatricality persists, how exactly the audience is employed and implemented in this performance when they are is also inconsistent. It is easy to become unsure of one’s role as an audience member here: participant, silent observer, witness…?
I mentioned the characters narrating the story, and this brings me to another issue: when performing their narrations, particularly when standing at the microphones, there should be a clear and strict decision between Allen and Robinson as to whether they are to be looking at one another; the action onstage; or simply staring forward, above the audience’s heads. Currently, the former two are characteristic of Allen’s narrations, and the latter of Robinson’s. As our narrators, these characters direct our focus and invite us to receive the material in a particular way. Whilst Allen remains animated, watching Robinson as he narrates, looking at the audience and then at the action onstage, Robinson simply stares icily forward, transfixed, almost stupefied. This is a disconcerting disparity — not to be taken as successfully disconcerting, given the monstrous themes.