Review: Frankenstein, Southwark Playhouse

“Soon,” Garth (Sonny Poon Tip) informs the audience, the very act of sitting together in a room to watch a show like this will seem “quaint”, like a fax machine. And I believe that after watching the NYT production of Frankenstein, like a bittersweet self-fulfilling prophecy, I have experienced some insight into the innovative new ways that technology will be incorporated into live performance in the not-so-distant future. 

Having had the pleasure of also reviewing the 2019 REP Company’s production of Great Expectations I am very impressed to see that the 16-strong cast is simultaneously staging another production. Of the two, this is certainly the stronger. The piece has been brought into the 21st century, to make the pertinent if not slightly predictable point about how our addiction to technology is a corrupting force, and that ethical exploration into what makes us truly human can have dire consequences. 

The tale begins at a technology convention where Garth introduces us to his sister Bob (Natalie Dunne) and her virtual crew on an arctic expedition where they come upon a wretched figure in the frozen wasteland. It is through Bob’s accounts that the story unfolds.

The set is comprised of a long aisle flanked by two tall structures that performers climb, sit, lay and stand upon throughout. They are draped in glowing LED lights and the floor is similarly illuminated by glowing trails. This is a hostile and sterile environment and an atmospheric setting for this modernisation of Shelley’s gothic horror classic.  

Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, with Mary Shelley credited as the founder of the genre and so it is particularly rewarding to see that the eponymous scientist has been changed to Victoria Frankenstein. Ella Dacres’ performance is show-stopping. She plays the tormented but brilliant scientist with a deep introspective focus, fear and searing regret. Her final scenes see her looking utterly desolate as she faces the gravity of imbuing a machine with sentience and denying it love and companionship. 

Frankenstein’s two creations Shell and Lee (like Shelley, ayyy? ayyy?) played by Sarah Lusak and Jordan Ford Silver, both capture an uncanny imitation of human emotion. Lusak is frightening in her stillness and purpose as she systematically seeks revenge against her repulsed creator. Yet she is still pitiable in her naïveté. Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode provides comic relief as Willa and Jamie Foulkes is an intensely likeable Eli. The human characters often start sentences and leave them unfinished as though it is they that are short-circuiting. It further distinguishes them from the undaunted robots who act and speak with total clarity. 

As well as standout individual performances this cast work exceptionally well as an ensemble. Through razor sharp choreography and chorus work, they add great emotional intensity to the piece. In particular, there are moments where they sing a haunting list of all of the people Victoria has lost. It is a hollow and mournful sound. 

The script is rather fragmented throughout. It is not immediately obvious who the story is predominantly following at first, and does drag slightly towards the second act. Being able to wear virtual reality headsets, though an exciting novelty to evoke the wonder of the arctic does not enhance the piece in any way. I suspect that the use of virtual reality will soon be commonplace in live performance but in these early stages should be incorporated in a more significant way.

This is an enjoyable, thought provoking performance from the REP Company and a real Halloween treat!

Frankenstein is playing the Southwark Playhouse until 30 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Southwark Playhouse website.