R L Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of those tales that has become part of our culture and imagination ever since it was published in 1886. This dark tale of scientific horror – and its underlying depth on the study of personality and of the nature of good and evil – has been now adapted into a narrative dance show by choreographer Drew McOnie, with mixed success.
Jeckyll & Hyde is set in the 1950s, which presumably gives McOnie the chance to explore a palette of different music styles with which to play. However, there are no more obvious advantages to the change of period, other than music and costumes. The set is ingenious: a three-part revolving structure that keeps changing in order to accommodate the story, with a minimalistic touch to it. Changes to the original story do not end here, confirming the “inspired by” specification in all advertising materials. This is no adaptation, but a tale that uses some of Stevenson’s ideas while keeping some of the characters’ names. In McOnie’s version, Dr Jekyll (Daniel Collins) is a nerdy-but-cute florist in search of a botanic miracle that can save his business, while falling in love with beautiful customer Dahlia (Rachel Muldoon), who is being chased by a gym-bully. I am sure I am not the first one to say that from the moment I saw the flower shop, I started expecting to see Audrey II – the hungry plant from Little Shop of Horrors – in the basement. This whole first section where the characters and the main plotline are presented is strangely colourful and upbeat, with beautiful frocks and skirts swirling and a score full of 50s rock & roll standards. Music-wise, the rock band/big band/progressive rock band sound fits the concept quite well, even though the lack of changes in intensity give way to the thought that this is all an indistinguishable wall of noise.
The serum that changes Jekyll’s life forever comes in the shape of a plant-growing solution that he tries on himself, given its success (as you do). Mr Hyde – danced by a different performer, Tim Hodges – appears in a teasing shower nude scene ready to unleash his evilness, which in this case can be translated as sexiness. There is an interesting point to be made about what we understand as ‘evil’. Before becoming a psycho, Mr Hyde is what Dr Jekyll is not, and in this case that is seductive, sexy and irresistible. It is something that can be understood from the novel, even if it is never said – a subversion of morality that comes with only using the ‘evil’ part of Jekyll’s personality. However, and maybe because the production is set in the 50s, the often violent sex scenes and overall hyper-seduction are not that shocking. And even when Hyde becomes murderous and kills off the rest of the cast, the sudden display of (expertly choreographed) violence falls in an awkward place: is it a rom-com gone wrong? A thriller with an extremely bland first half? After a scene where people are intoxicated by Jekyll’s flowers (which have been sprayed with the serum) and become addicted to them while sexually awakening, several murders in the last half hour feel like a different show.
Collins gives by far the stand-out performance of the evening, dancing energetically and being endearingly expressive. Muldoon is also fantastic as Jekyll’s love interest, and their duets are fluid and believable. Hodges’s Mr Hyde, on the other hand, has little to work with as his character is reduced to a seductive killer, which he portrays effectively. The rest of the cast are equally good, with strong ensemble numbers.
Jekyll & Hyde, although not a landmark production, is effective in telling its story, even if it is not even remotely similar to that of the original novel. It is not clear in its tone or even genre, and overall it feels a bit shallow. However, a rather talented cast and some energetic choreography partly make up for it, even though I am left wondering where the dark gothic tale has gone.
Jekyll & Hyde is playing at the Old Vic until 28 May. For more information, see the Old Vic website.