Stage Adaptation by Jack Thorne
Based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Directed by Bryony Shanahan
ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
To the uninitiated LET THE RIGHT ONE IN might look like a typical Halloween vampire gorefest, but thankfully this production is so much more. The blood and gore may spurt in a plentiful supply, but at its glistening heart this a story about love, otherness and acceptance. A lonely young boy being viciously bullied at school and ignored by his alcoholic mother meets an ageless, sexless vampire hungry for more than just blood. This hugely successful Swedish novel has spawned numerous film, television and theatre adaptations. Director Bryony Shanahan takes this 2013 adaptation by Jack Thorne and creates an almost immersive audience experience in the round. As the tension builds and the exits are blocked the audience is trapped just like the victims, the peril of leaving the theatre blood splattered is viscerally real and the poignancy of such a macabre love story becomes painfully vivid.
The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin is highly effective in creating an early Eighties atmosphere that is versatile enough to function as the inside of a school sports facility, a bleak Swedish council estate, eerie woods and a Sweetie concession in a neon bright shopping mall. The ladders and platforms over the stage, and the climbing frame all give the production room to build the drama and a real kinetic energy; however the continual wheeling in and out of additional props is often as distracting as it is effective. The startling use of light by Joshua Pharo to propel and enhance the horror elements of the drama is stunningly good especially when coupled with the sound design by Pete Malkin. The overall effect is to create a real sense of nothing ever being quite what it seems or that permanence or security is fleeting and can vanish in a curl of steamy air or the sudden silver flash of a blade.
In the main this is a strong cast with some lovely character driven performances from Darren Kuppan and a bleak and intensely creepy Hakan delivered by Andrew Sheridan. The two central performances are uniformly excellent with the inspired casting of Rhian Blundell as Eli and Pete MacHale as Oskar. Blundell is utterly captivating as the centuries old vampire child. Her physical presence morphs like quicksilver between wary and tentative youth to muscular and visceral blood hungry creature, and then on to winsome innocent charm. MacHale as Oskar is sweetly awkward and geeky with a keen intelligence that comprehends the failures of the adults around him while his innocence is bewildered by his bullies and mesmerised by the sexless Eli who smells of death and stale blood. Both actors are utterly believable and allow for this story to rise above the usual teen vampire fare to become something much more emotionally satisfying.
There are some problematic issues with this production but the overall feel is of a stimulating and satisfying night at the theatre. Director Bryony Shanahan may have sometimes allowed for overly busy scenes or in the case of the scene with Oskars’ father a somewhat redundant one, however overall this is a gorefully gorgeous production. Some of its most memorable moments such as the swimming pool scene were climactic on so many levels and a potent reminder of The Royal Exchange at its very best.