Frankenstein, NT Olivier, London
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse, London
The Biting Point, Theatre503, London
Alternate stars make the Creature more than the sum of his parts
For a wunderkind specialising in physiology and anatomy, hailed as a genius at Ingolstadt University, Victor Frankenstein is unbelievably bad at suture. In the National Theatre's much-hyped but initially disappointing adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jonny Lee Miller stumbles around as the Creature, shorn head and naked body laced with crudely tacked wounds.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Lee Miller are, by the by, swapping parts (in the theatrical sense) for Danny Boyle's production, alternating as the titular scientist-creator and the nameless man-monster whom Frankenstein surgically fashions from human remains, intent on producing a new species. Thus, two consecutive press nights were required, with Lee Miller playing the Creature first.
In brief, he starts out as a subnormal ingénu and outcast. Cadging an education, he grows intellectually sophisticated, yet also bitter and twisted by society's injustices and his creator's abandonment of him. Loping round the Olivier's vast revolving stage – against a craggy, ice-white backdrop – he dogs the scientist from the Alps to the Orkneys to the Arctic.
What's interesting – as well as ironic – about Shelley's 1816 horror story is that while she portrayed Frankenstein's tinkering with Nature as hubristically doomed, the many adaptors of her novel for stage and screen have had few qualms about performing swingeing narrative surgery. They've sawn off chunks and appended numerous bits of their own.
Boyle's adaptor, Nick Dear, has promised a return to the book. And he certainly remains more faithful to its core plot than either the 1930s movies starring Boris Karloff or the 1994 rejig which Kenneth Branagh had the nerve to call "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein". The badly sewn scars are, in fact, a cinematic invention, for Shelley detailed the Creature's blackened lips and shrivelled skin, luxurious flowing hair and pearl-white teeth. Still, Boyle and Dear have shunned other encrusted add-ons, including ye olde neck bolt and the operating table winched up for lightning strikes.
Returning to stage work after Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle seems keen to demonstrate a mastery of physical theatre, so physical that it verges on modern dance. The Creature (choreographed by Toby Sedgwick) bursts through a pulsating membrane. Flopping face-down, he writhes and flips, crawls on all fours and finally levers himself on to two feet. It's an episode that, while condensing child development and Darwinian evolution with gymnastic skill, goes on far too long.
Abridged scenes ensue, in almost ludicrously hacked-down snippets. Frankenstein dashes on stage and off, appalled. A surreal chorus line in goggles and top hats rides in on a spectacularly infernal locomotive. Chanting unintelligibly as the engine spews sparks, they presumably represent the industrial revolution and urban incivility, cudgelling the Creature, apparently without motive.
In contrasting rural serenity, there's a transcendent moment when birds soar out of corn sheaves, the electronic folk score burbles like a spring, and the Creature leaps for joy. Yet all the while the dialogue lurches wildly between the inanely rudimentary and (albeit tongue-in-cheek) latinate tranches of Milton.
That said, most of Shelley's big ideas – about nurture, deformed morals, and the ramifications of scientific advance – are at least glimpsed, and the script gains strength once Lee Miller, craving love or vengeance, has tracked down Cumberbatch's arrogant Frankenstein. Moreover, though two press nights might have seemed de trop, small differences proved fascinating, with Cumberbatch's turn as the Creature revealing greater poignancy and endearing humour. For example, while Lee Miller's newborn Creature wobbles his bottom under a surprise rain shower (a slightly cheap gag), Cumberbatch's greets a sunburst with utterly innocent joy, arms flung up with a little "Ha ha!" that's half-baby, half-bird. Likewise, to compare their Frankensteins, Lee Miller barely responds to his fiancée's kiss, whereas Cumberbatch's scientist is discernibly alarmed by the passion he feels.
For sure, Shelley and this production undermine orthodox hierarchies, emphasising how master and underdog reflect each other. But if we're ranking Boyle's star actors, then Cumberbatch – feeling more deeply and making subtler choices – comes out on top in both roles.
Meanwhile, the Donmar's latest American musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, seems peculiarly childish fare for an adult audience. A bunch of nerdy kids in cutesy-cranky tank tops and specs compete in several barely dramatic rounds, learn to be good losers and make friends. Jamie Lloyd's production is full of bounce, if cheerleader pompoms are your bag. Most of the songs, though, are more shouty than catchy, the singing as shrill as a dentist's drill.
There's gorgeous mellifluousness from the quizmaster's assistants (Katherine Kingsley and Ako Mitchell), and Steve Pemberton's deadpan Panch is splendidly droll, teasing audience participants and offering frisky dictionary definitions. But, essentially vacuous, this hardly stimulates the grey matter.
At least Theatre503, on the fringe, is grappling with meatier issues. Sharon Clark's new play, The Biting Point, cuts between three individuals who collide at a protest march. Though the setting is the 1980s, the topic over which the characters clash – rising neo-fascist xenophobia – remains topical enough. Clark deliberately keeps you unsure what role her protagonists will play at the protest and which political side they'll be on.
Their domestic morals may not match as we eavesdrop on a possibly psychotic law enforcer, on a middle-class teacher with a sexually dodgy track record, and on working-class Malcolm, struggling to look after his mentally challenged sister. It's a pity the symmetries are too neat and some monologues dramatically strained, but most of Dan Coleman's cast shine, with Lizzie Roper as a lonely housewife and Charlie Hollway's Malcolm proving ferociously good.
Kate Bassett hopes to be spellbound by The Wizard of Oz.
The Donmar's King Lear, directed by Michael Grandage and starring Derek Jacobi, right, is now on tour. It's at Belfast's Grand Opera House this week (Tues to Sat). Meanwhile, at Wyndham's in London's West End, Bruce Norris's painfully funny satire Clybourne Park scrutinises race relations over half a century (to 7 May).
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