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Let The Right One In: Theatre review - 'a serious vampire romance'

Royal Court, London

The genre of vampire romance is not one that I have been inclined to take seriously – at least not in its trashy Twilight phase of cynically exploiting the adolescent female market.  But Let The Right One In has a seriousness and emotional intensity that would disarm even the most militant sceptic. John Ajvide Lindqvist's cult 2004 coming-of-age novel has previously been adapted into a deeply haunting Swedish movie and a less successful Hollywood remake.

Now transferred to the Royal Court, Jack Thorne's National Theatre of Scotland stage version is directed by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, the team behind the balletic docudrama Black Watch.

They have produced a piece that will chill you to the marrow and break your heart.  Christine Jones's snowy set is filled with towering silver birches  – a design that seems to expose even the interior scenes to the freezing elements.  This is the forest where a serial killer is bleeding young men to death and where the bullied, lonely teenager Oskar (played with a quirky cusp-of-puberty awkwardness by the excellent Martin Quinn) is first viewed stabbing the tree trunks in a fantasy of revenge by his strange new neighbour, Eli, a girl who only comes out at night. 

Her otherness is transixingly conveyed by Rebecca Benson.  She's a limber pallid sprite who seems eerily self-possessed but who radiates the ache of exile from ordinary human contact and speaks with a weird distanced-yet-pleading lilt. She refuses to call herself a vampire but springs with a terrifying cat-like agility when desperate for blood.  What follows is a strange, tender, dangerous love story between two outsiders who intuit that they are kindred spirits.

The movie version feels like a riposte to sleek Scandinavian social complacency.  Here the emphasis is on how the Oskar and Eli are drawn together, in part, because they have been let down so badly by the adult world.  The boy's single mother is a needy, clinging alcoholic, given to curling up beside him in bed.  His father seems to have embarked on a gay relationship. His gym teacher is useless at protecting him from the bullies whose sadistic taunts are depicted with sickening immediacy.  And, crucially, Eli may be the undead mistress rather than the daughter of her jealous guardian Hakan (Ewen Stewart) whose morbid devotion has a creepy paedophile edge.

It was the choreographed movement (so renowned a feature of this directing partnership) that seemed to me the weakest element in the production –  generalising rather than amplifying the emotion and somewhat deja vu  from Frantic Assembly shows.  But Olafur Arnalds' soundscape pulses and thrums with menace and there are set pieces that will lodge forever in one's nightmares (for example, the climactic bullying scene in the swimming pool).  What impresses most, though, is how searchingly and poetically the piece uses vampire myth as a metaphor for human isolation.

To 21 December; 0207 565 5000