H G Wells’ iconic novella lends itself to the screen rather than the stage. Only one notable theatrical adaptation, by Ken Hill, most recently seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Until now.
This world premiere of a commission from Clem Garritty – Artistic Director of Kill The Beast – brings his trademark mix of dark drama, physical theatre and live music to the Queen’s. The story is set against a backdrop of a chilly, Gothic Victorian London – it was first published in 1897 – and follows Griffin – here traditionally christened Jack – from his lodgings on Great Portland Street to the rural remotenesses of West Sussex.
Lily Arnold’s set is a masterpiece, constructed largely of cabinets, suggesting the laboratory, with two levels, gas-lamps and multiple doorways. Griffin’s rooms at the university, and his lodgings at the inn at Iping, are pulled in from the wings. The lighting (Nic Farman) is suitably atmospheric – the train journeys are suggested purely by sound and light.
The eight actors are also musicians; one of the strengths of this production is the use of music and song to tell the story and to comment on it, Sweeney Todd style. “Come listen,” they sing as the show opens, warning of the “demon at your front door”, “neither flesh nor ghost”. And ballads, accompanied by fiddles, accordion or pub piano, punctuate the story at key moments.
The action begins with Dr Kemp (a strong, somewhat enigmatic presence from Paul McEwan) lecturing on optics and refraction. A graduate student – none other than the soon-to-be-invisible Jack Griffin – stays behind to hint at a scientific breakthrough undreamed of by the professor. And, in a flash, we’re in Sussex where a sinister figure in dark goggles and a leather greatcoat, his head completely shrouded in white bandages, is about to bring fear and hysteria to the village.
He’s given a compelling performance by Matthew Spencer who movingly portrays the increasingly demented desperation of the scientist who loses control of his experiment, closeted, like Dr Jekyll, with his potions – “I must find a way to reverse the process…”. His performance all the more remarkable since he has to convey so much with just his body language, without any facial expression; in some very effective scenes, he is merely a disembodied voice.
Garritty gives his protagonist a strong female counterpart – the suffragette Lucy (Eleanor Wyld, who also plays her twin sister, the “actress” Amelia). Like Jack, they both disappear – Amelia into the dangerous slums of Whitechapel, Lucy in Griffin’s university rooms.
Sophie Duval brings out the subtleties and the struggle in the character of Mrs Hall, the pub landlady who rents Griffin a room. Matthew Woodyatt is brilliant as Teddy, her “man”, who mends the bar-room clock – “time moves more slowly here…” – and later assists the Invisible Man. And Phil Adele plays Thomas Marvel, the vagrant who is recruited by Griffin – “neither of us shall go unseen ever again” – and then steals his precious notebooks.
There is much food for thought alongside the science-fiction/supernatural storyline. Both the vagrant and the women scientists, suffer “invisibility”. And one of the ballads poses the familiar philosophical question “What would you do if no-one could see?”
There is some stunningly inventive stagecraft – Jack, invisible, unties his books, is captured under a blanket, runs amok in a police cell. And, yes, we do see him disappear before our incredulous eyes. The roof-top dénouement – another invention – makes a dramatic climax. Some of the simplest ideas are the most effective – running across the stage with lanterns, the bowler hat right at the end.
If there is a weakness, it is in the writing; the idiom, while lively and immediate, is sometimes too modern for the period, so well captured in the costumes and the set.