Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
Guest reviewer: Claire Roderick
Arrows & Traps’ track record adapting classics is second to none, and with this new production Ross McGregor has created something startlingly modern and original that still embraces its Victorian origins. The entitled cruelty and hypocrisy of Victorian society echoes down the years by transplanting Henry Jekyll into the world of modern US politics, where optics and soundbites are everything and political heroes harbour dark secrets. Most of the characters in the original novel apart from the titular duo aren’t that interesting, serving as narrators or reacting to the horror, but McGregor has written multi-layered and fascinating roles that tell this familiar story with both immediacy and fatalism.
Reporter Gabrielle Utterson’s investigations into an attack on a child sets her on the trail of the mysterious Edward Hyde. Helped by sexworker Imogen Poole, who witnessed the aftermath of Hyde’s brutality, she follows the trail to Indiana mayor Henry Jekyll. Following Trump’s impeachment, Jekyll is running for president and his liberal ideas convince Utterson to work on his campaign. But Hyde still lurks in the background.
There are jumps between the present and four years earlier to the time when Jekyll first met Hyde and the relationship they developed. Hyde is a Republican school teacher, openly gay, but Jekyll’s political ambitions keep him closeted. This Hyde is a completely different animal to the Hyde in the present, and it’s a slow burn following a trail of clues that lead to the final revelation of the mechanics of Jekyll’s scientific experiment. Jekyll’s reasons are much less detached and scientific than the original, but come from a place of grief, rage and helplessness that are completely understandable and more human.
In this political play, school shootings, gun control, Black Lives Matter and many more issues that cause division and anger are tackled by Jekyll in his public and private speeches, and he is already adept at hiding his true self from public view before the darkness of Hyde looms large. Utterson’s devastating backstory involving her senator father’s depraved private life makes her fascination with and urge to help Jekyll poignant and pathetic.
Will Pinchin is charismatic and charming as Jekyll, making his gradual loss of control all the more shocking as Pinchin deforms before your eyes, physically and vocally in a masterful performance. Christopher Tester is effortlessly evil as Hyde, with a silky voice and a malevolent stillness that is hypnotic and horrifying.
Lucy Ioannou gives an astonishing performance – as Utterson she is nearly vibrating with tormented energy, world weary and damaged, but wearing her pain like armour. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain impresses as Imogen Poole, providing a warm, empathetic anchor for Utterson, and the whole play, and Charlie Ryall nails the tragi-comic social awkwardness of razor-sharp scientist Hayley Lanyon.
Most of the cast have worked with director Ross McGregor many times, so the meticulous attention to detail, where every move and glance is meaningful and almost poetic appears effortless. The sound and lighting (by Alistair Lax and Anna Reddyhoff) are as beautiful and instinctive as you’d expect from Arrows & Traps, and the use of projections and sheer panels in Charlotte Cooke’s set design is inspired, creating atmospheric transformations that nod to the spiritualist tricks of the Victorian era. The total theatrical package – another stunner from Arrows & Traps.
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