Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 19 August 2019

Vampire tale needs a deeper bite

The two young leads are terrific
The two young leads are terrific

Katy Hayes

A deliciously spooky, snowy forest covers the Abbey stage. As the audience settles, people in winter clothing pass through the trees, on their way somewhere; Christine Jones's set design is arrestingly beautiful.

There is a murderer about. Young men's bodies are being found in the woods, their throats cut. A policeman addresses the audience, warning us to be on our guard. A father and daughter have moved in next door to lonely, bullied Oskar. At least they look like a father and daughter. Oskar and the teenage girl form a firm friendship, their connection based on their shared status as outsiders.

Director John Tiffany created this show for the Scottish National Theatre, and it is remounted here with an Irish cast. It is based on the screenplay and novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist. The novel was published in 2004 and the film was produced in 2008. It was followed by an English-language version a few years later. This stage adaptation was written by Jack Thorne. The story follows classic vampire tropes, including the necessity for a vampire to have a human helper. The title references the traditional idea that a vampire cannot cross a person's threshold without being invited.

Tiffany is a superb director of the physical and the stylised movement is a real strength of the show. He pulls together a first-rate team of collaborators. Sound design by Gareth Fry, including a growling tummy and plenty of gory effects, is superb; Ólafur Arnalds's dramatic score makes a big contribution. Lighting by Chahine Yavroyan is spooky and helps create a number of jumpy moments.

But Tiffany's strength as a movement director pulls him away from content and the script is terribly thin. Oskar has separated parents: the indomitable Ruth McGill makes a Trojan effort with the slender character of Oskar's mum; Richard Clements is also marooned in a characterless cameo as the dad. The bullying scenes are well handled, but not particularly original.

The two young leads are terrific. Katie Honan as the vampire Eli is sinuous and animalistic in her movements. Craig Connolly plays Oskar with great conviction. Both easily convince as being young teens. Irritatingly, there is no longer any biographical information about the actors and creative team in Abbey programmes.

Searching for depth, there is a suggestion that the elfin Eli used to be male, but it doesn't go anywhere, simply fuels a gag. In the original novel this has a complex explanation. Set in the early 1980s (a news bulletin discusses Ronald Reagan's Star Wars) there is little other indication of a rootedness in place or time. Again, an idea that might have a bit of meat on it simply peters out.

A number of taboos are gestured at, but no attempt is made to delve into any of them. It is aimed at an audience of 13+ and it may satisfy young teens. But for older teenagers accustomed to the depth and intelligence of contemporary YA fare, this will feel very thin, despite its terrific production values.


Viking Theatre, Clontarf, Nov  27 —  Dec 9

Susie Kennedy returns to the Viking with this musical stage show on the subject of ageing. Funny, topical scripts by a number of writers and hit songs made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and others.


Dolmen, Cornelscourt, Nov 29 — Dec 2

Written by Ger Gallagher, this contemporary comedy is set in an Easi-Slim clinic, where two very different women strike up a friendship. Directed by Caroline FitzGerald and featuring Rose Henderson and Isobel Mahon.


Gate Theatre, Dublin, Nov 30  — Jan 27

Selina Cartmell directs the Gate’s Christmas show, her first since taking over. A new version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale by Nancy Harris features an orphan girl adopted by a Dublin family.

Faded movie star commands the stage

Sunset Boulevard is an Andrew Lloyd Webber  musical, a big-numbered melodrama of the old school. It is a homage to Billy Wilder’s 1950 Gothic film masterpiece, which was itself a homage to the era of silent movies. The musical was premièred in the early 1990s. This touring production originated in the Curve, Leicester.

Down-on-his-luck writer Joe Gillis is on the run from the repo man when he takes refuge in a big house on Sunset Boulevard. In residence there is faded star of the silent cinema Norma Desmond. She recruits Joe to redraft her screenplay about Salome, and also recruits him to her bed. Penniless, he essentially becomes a gigolo. The household is guarded by the creepy butler Max Von Mayerling, who feeds Norma’s delusions by creating avalanches of fake fan mail.

Ria Jones delivers a powerful vocal performance as Norma, undercut by a febrile sensitivity. Danny Mac commits himself fully to the vulnerability of Joe, the struggling writer; authenticity shines through his sterling performing skills. Adam Pearce’s wonderfully versatile voice injects plenty of emotion into the bass role of Max. Irish talent Molly Lynch plays Betty, the alternative love interest, with sweet sincerity and a terrific voice.

Nikolai Foster directs with a grand vision. Every inch of the stage is used, with plenty of back projection for car scenes, bits of silent-era movies, and portraits of old cinema stars. A Gothic mansion on Sunset and Paramount Studios are nimbly created with a large curved staircase swinging into action.

Norma Desmond is one of the great complicated heroines of cinema, and the story embraces those complications fully. Women characters referenced in the show include Salome and Delilah, two of the most notable female Biblical villains. Wilder was not afraid of strong, bold women characters and Norma’s large dramatic emotions translate perfectly to musical theatre. The pictures may have “got small”, according to Norma, but the musical version is very big indeed.

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