Jekyll and Hyde is a favourite musical for a lot of people, including myself, so it’s a brave move to take something so firmly set in the Victorian era and bring it into the twenty-first century. Half of the time, an update hits several walls, so it’s a testament to this production that not only is Wildhorn and Bricusse’s musical popular enough to warrant an update, but that Director Luke Fredericks successfully achieves it.
The musical isn’t wholly true to the novel (if you’re unaware of the storyline, a Doctor experiments upon himself to invent a drug to control the evil side of human nature, but finds himself unleashing it instead). A subplot is invented between Jekyll/Hyde and a prostitute, Lucy (played brilliantly by Madalena Alberto if you ignore the indeterminate accent). The heartfelt stories of Lucy and her love rival, Emma Carew (sung beautifully by Joanna Strand), were responsible for a few tears being shed. Updating these characters has made them seem more three-dimensional, and lends a particular grittiness to the roles.
The intimacy of their stories contrasts with the ferocity with which Tim Rogers plays Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde. Rogers’s dichotomy of character is expertly played; his Hyde in particular is darkly enigmatic and well physicalised. Jekyll and Hyde is a difficult show to direct, belief in the story depends a lot upon how the transformation of Jekyll/Hyde is portrayed, and Fredericks’s simple choices combined with Rogers’s acting were a thousand times more effective than other productions I’ve seen, which have rested on spectacle and costume. Catherine Webb’s use of torchlight and washes, and the fuzzy production of Ben Walden’s video projections, combined to create the menacing atmosphere of the gothic novel.
Updating it is surprisingly easy: Jekyll’s proposal is made to an NHS medical body and his diary is written on a Mac. The slightly stoned portrayal of Lucy also brings a true sadness to the role. The multiplicity of personas in the chorus is more relatable than the very thin divide of simply rich and poor. The staging is fast-paced, and the chorus especially precise. At times however, I think it tries too hard to be busy where there is enough intensity emanating from the excellent soloists, and the scene should focus upon them.
What makes this production of Jekyll and Hyde so hard-hitting is the use of space in the little Union Theatre. Although there were a few foibles with the set which sadly keep it from perfection, it is otherwise innovatively used: the breaking of the fourth wall and being so close you can really see into Rogers’s tormented eyes brings vivacity and reality to this production. This is complemented wonderfully by Dean Austin’s full sounding arrangement of the score, and Stewart Charlesworth’s hardy, grim set.
Charlesworth, Austin and Fredericks’s company Morphic Graffiti turns a traditional musical which has always had the potential to be something more, into just that. It’s slick and sinister: a deliciously wicked piece of theatre.
Jekyll and Hyde is playing at the Union Theatre until 16 June. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website.