THEATRE Blood and Ice New End, London

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The Independent Culture
Mary Shelley liked the theatre. Attending a tacky vaudeville based upon her 1819 novel Frankenstein, her response was typically delight not disdain. She liked spectacle and she liked plot. And so I wonder what she would have made of the poet Liz Lochhead's febrile 1984 psychodrama, Blood and Ice, which in a conventional sense lacks both of those qualities, concentrating instead on weaving a spider's web of connections between Mary's own life and the that of her literary monster.

There is, of course, a whole industry of academics devoted to this sort of thing, though it doesn't need a doctorate to conclude that she was fulfilling some dark psychological need when she wrote the book. Mary's mother died of a fever soon after giving birth to her; her father ostracised her when she eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, aged 15; and her first child, born prematurely, lived only a few days (she was 17 at the time). It would be surprising if she didn't feel ambivalent about the act of creation and the duties of the creator.

Blood and Ice begins at the event that might be described as the birth of Frankenstein, the famous 1816 house-party by Lake Geneva, where the two Shelleys, Mary's half-sister Claire Claremont, Lord Byron and (off- stage somewhere) the vampiric Dr Polidori decide to scare each other by writing horror stories. It's a scene made familiar by artists as diverse as Howard Brenton (in Bloody Poetry) and Ken Russell (in Gothic). Unlike them, however, Lochhead is resistant to the glamour of this gathering: it's not a party you'd want to be invited to.

Byron (played by Luke Shaw with the foppishness more usually associated with Polidori) is a bore, Shelley a shiny-faced cypher. Mary herself is stony and serious most of the time, allowing herself the indulgence of a girlish giggle only when her lover drapes his naked body over hers. Never mind Byron's reference to "vulgar and visceral excesses", the height of high spirits is a game of blind man's buff. The political banter would grace a party conference floor debate.

It's soon clear that, in her first serious attempt at playwriting, Lochhead fights shy of conflict. Each character is vacuum-packed individually. Blood and Ice develops not so much through its protagonists loving, hating or addressing each other, but through the magpie accumulation of symbols. Mary's relationship to Frankenstein's "creature" is externalised (he's a well-dressed young man, whose speech is two parts Caliban to one part baby talk) but it's never really dramatised.

In spite of this there are a clutch of fine performances, not least from Molly Gaisford's stoically enduring Mary. Poppy Hill's Claire is also a wonderful creation. At first, she's the little girl who had a little curl, with a body as limp as a rag doll and a six-year-old's habit of flailing her legs with impatience and excitement. She's as out of depth in this Gothic world as Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. But you can see her coarsen as the play goes on, and her love for Byron is unrequited, so that by the end she's more like Mrs Elton from Emma.

Lochhead's writing has its moments (such as when Byron describes men and women as different species, "all of us on islands of ice, floating further and further away from each other".) But they are just that: moments, snatches of unwritten poems. And, though she was married to a poet herself, you can't help wondering whether the theatre-loving bit of Mary Shelley would have approved.

To 2 Feb. Booking 0171-794 0022