Mary Shelley’s original tale of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus comes to life…
Forget your Universal Studios’ creature lumbering around, the wild-eyed scientist crying “It’s alive!” and the villagers finding their trusty pitchforks to pursue a hideous monster into a windmill and then setting it alight – this is Shelley’s tale given its due by adapter Jonathan Barnes. Its themes of hubris and the attempts to take something from the gods – hence the book’s subtitle – are brought to the fore, and in this version, it’s very clear who the monster is. And for once, it’s not the character played by Nick Briggs.
Arthur Darvill shouldn’t need to resort to parodies of Disney songs to make the Doctor Who fans “let go” of his time as Rory Williams back in the Matt Smith era of the show (and doesn’t that in some ways feel so long ago now?); his stage appearances and his command of the role of Victor Frankenstein show how versatile he is as a performer. The emotional coldness and the single-mindedness at the heart of Victor are never in doubt, and there are times that he makes you want to team up with the creature he puts together in order to bring about his end.
Adopting a narrative framework of Victor telling his tale to the captain of a ship on which he has been brought on board, Barnes ensures that the parallels between Frankenstein and the captain who is obsessively seeking the north-west passage are clear without hammering them home. Victor also has an ability to corrupt those around him – although interestingly once they are away from his influence, they seem to regain their sanity – and in the captain’s interactions with his mate, Mr Christensen, (in deft performances by Alex Jordan and Terry Molloy), we hear how much Victor’s presence fuels the other man’s fire.
It’s not a pure recounting of Shelley’s tale, but steers closer to it than the vast majority of versions, maintaining most of the same beats, but strengthening many of them – the final confrontation between creature and creator, for example. Much of the characterisation is tightened up both in the script and the performances – notably by Darvill and Georgia Moffett, whose Elizabeth has an edge to her when required, rather than just being the meek and willing chattel that Victor wants. Nick Briggs adopts a voice for the creature that constantly reminds you of its rough-hewn nature, and really does gain your sympathy for someone who is constantly betrayed, while Geoffrey Beevers’ Alphonse Frankenstein is one of the saddest characters of all.
Director/producer Scott Handcock has brought together a very strong voice cast: supporting the leads, Geoffrey Breton, Lizzie Hopley, Stephen Fewell and Sarah Ovens each play multiple parts with aplomb – the final scene between Darvill and Ovens (as Justine) in particular is terrifying, while Breton’s Clerval’s encounter with Briggs’ creature is likely to haunt your dreams.
The sound design and James Dunlop’s music add immeasurably to the period feel – the score is one of my favourites of recent Big Finish releases, and I’m pleased it gets a proper showcase here – but that doesn’t mean that the production feels stilted. There are still plenty of lessons to learn from Shelley’s tale, and you’re highly unlikely to find a better dramatization than this.
Verdict: Intense, horrifying and brilliantly realised – more like this please, Big Finish. 10/10