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Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein review at the Royal Opera House, London

Steven McRae and Federico Bonelli in Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton Steven McRae and Federico Bonelli in Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Given Liam Scarlett’s track record for flirting fearlessly with dark material his version of Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel is surprisingly sedate. Yes, there is a dissection scene with amputated limbs which would not have disgraced a Hammer Film; yes, there is an onstage hanging and, of course, there is the Creature given life by bolts of lightning. But much of the narrative revolves around the relationship between Victor Frankenstein (Federico Bonelli) and his childhood love, Elizabeth (Laura Morera). This is a gothic romance with the accent on romance.

Opening with the young Elizabeth being taken in one wild and stormy night by the Frankenstein family it moves swiftly through the narrative as time passes, Victor and Elizabeth fall in love and Mrs Frankenstein dies giving birth to her youngest son. Lowell Liebermann’s score which is in danger of being mistaken for Mantovani on a good day up till now, kicks in properly and shifts the tone into predictive doom. The swooning strings and sudden juxtapositions with howling brass keep the story on its toes even when it threatens to get a bit floppy.

The piece really wakes up when the scene shifts to the anatomy theatre at Ingolstadt University – superbly designed by John MacFarlane as a semi-circular interior arena – where students behave much the same as they do in Doctor in the House. It’s lively, funny and characterful, with plenty of good ensemble work and character sketches, including the introduction of Victor’s about-to-be bestie, the hapless Henry Clerval (Alexander Campbell, terrific). Following a rather unnecessary scene in a tavern in which the students undergo an anatomy lesson of quite a different kind from the local whores, Victor returns to the theatre to have a go at reanimating the corpse on the table.

The reanimation scene is worth the price of admission with MacFarlane’s set snapping, crackling and popping as strange steampunk galvanic devices descend from above and bubble green liquid at the side. Bonelli’s solo reveals the subtly of Scarlett’s choeography as Victor moves from starchy formality to feverish excitement at the climax of his experiment. As Steven McRae’s Creature unfolds himself from the table and runs out of the door there is a palpable sense of anticipation.

Strong and confident in its narrative arc with plenty of choreographic action between the couples – women are frequently tossed into the air like peanuts in a pub game – there is nonetheless an imbalance in the characterisation. Victor is too passive, an anaemic observer of his own tragedy rather than the propulsive heart of the tale. And the Creature is short-changed, especially after an absolutely stunning but far too brief solo in which McRae impersonates the kind of ‘civilised’ behaviour he has been observing in secret. The last act is a bit of a mess as the stage resembles a kitsch Hollywood version of Strictly Come Dancing complete with spangled dresses. The arrival of the Creature who appears to be invisible to all but Victor makes little sense and the concluding fatalities are rushed through in an unseemly manner.

There is still plenty to feast your eyes on and there is nothing here that some bolt tightening wouldn’t cure.

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Liam Scarlett’s first full-length ballet is a creature feature in a class of its own