When you hear the word ‘Frankenstein’, you never think of the man that actually brought the story (and the infamous monster) to life – but Gods and Monsters, the story about James Whale, does. Based on the book Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, God and Monsters follows Whale (Ian Gelder) as he deals with becoming a recluse in 1950s Los Angeles. On top of the battles he is dealing with in his career, he is also dealing with illness, and finds himself confiding in his gardener Clayton (Will Austin).
Of course your first thought goes to the Oscar-winning film written by Bill Condon and starring Sir Ian McKellen. Even director Russell Labey states in the director’s notes, “I’ve avoided discussing details of the story here in regard of those arriving fresh”, and it is for the best because Labey’s retelling is a totally different game. He keeps it simple and fresh, and keeping it like that helps heighten the emotion that charges the story throughout.
As the show pans out, we see James Whale go from a cheeky, almost Carry On-like character who does everything in his might to get his male guests fully naked to a vulnerable being, reminiscing about his past as his health deteriorates. The introduction of Clayton into his life keeps his spirits high for a while, but we discover a much deeper plot twist that quite frankly takes your breath away.
This five-strong cast brings out the energy of a full ensemble, diving into characters of different nationalities with a click of a finger. The energy never drops as they do this, and you find yourself clinging to the edge of your seat (and getting a mini heart attack when Gelder suddenly raises his voice). It is so engaging in fact, you can definitely excuse the weird interval set up (the first half is 1 hour 20 minutes, so don’t drink too much during the show!).
Gelder’s performance as James Whale is nothing short of incredible. It easily sits up there with Sir Ian McKellen’s Oscar-nominated performance in the film adaptation, and will no doubt get people talking after the show is over. The same goes for Will Austin, marking his stage debut as the naive Clayton Boone, who brings a lot of depth to a character that is seen as an “airless hick”. The chemistry between the pair is quite enticing, and you watch both of them attentively to see which one will explode first. Joey Phillips and Will Rastall’s chemistry is the same, and the flashback of the pair in the army will make even the hardest heart crack. And of course, we cannot forget Lachele Carl as Whale’s maid Maria, who provides great comic relief in some intense moments.
Gods and Monsters is an absolute rollercoaster of a show, and by the end you will not know what to feel. Though there are some moments that you are not too sure about (three out of the four male cast members get naked) those couple of minutes are washed away with tour-de-force acting debuts and a performance of a lifetime from Ian Gelder. Do what ever you can to get a ticket to this show.
Gods and Monsters is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 7 March. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Annabel Vere.