IN the words of lead actor James Willstrop, Mel Brooks’s bawdy, boisterous musical conversion of Young Frankenstein is “not subtle”. “It’s lovely to be doing something silly, full of innuendos and jokes that some people might hate but are just daft,” he says.
Willstrop carries that spirit – and all the lanky physicality that goes into being a 6ft 4inch former world squash number one-turned actor – into playing esteemed New York brain surgeon and professor Doctor Frederick Frankenstein. Pronounced “Fronk-en-steen,” the mop-haired doctor insists.
Billed as a “wickedly inspired re-imagining” of a teenage Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein, Brooks’s comedy horror musical receives its northern premiere in Andrew Isherwood’s delightfully cheeky production.
Pick Me Up Theatre producer and designer Robert Readman had cast the show for its postponed run at the Grand Opera House last autumn: a delightful gift to Isherwood, whose own skills as a comedic actor find him bringing out the best in all those around him as Young Frankenstein is sparked into new life for this week’s run at the JoRo.
He even pops up in a doleful cameo as the blind Hermit, the Gene Hackman role from Brooks’s 1974 film, lamenting his loneliness in Please Bring Me Someone and bringing down the house in the slapstick nonsense of a farcical scene with Craig Kirby’s grunting Monster.
“It’s only one scene,” the woolly-haired Isherwood adlibs to the boisterous Pick Me Up supporters’ club in the stalls, breaking down theatre’s fourth wall as the anarchic Brooks would no doubt love.
In a nod to Young Frankenstein’s roots, the show opens with black-and-white screen credits, accompanied by thunder and lightning. One by one, we meet the colourful characters of Brooks’s horror-movie parody, a process that emphasises the individual strengths of Pick Me Up’s cast, each being given an introductory song to make their mark.
Willstrop had performed the opening The Brain as his audition piece and he immediately establishes the gawky boffin in Dr Frankenstein, always assertive but transmutable too, vowing not to follow in the deranged genius footsteps of his grandfather, Victor Von Frankenstein, on inheriting his Transylvanian castle and laboratory, only to later be enticed into matching his experiments in reanimating a corpse.
Fiancée Elizaeth will be left behind but not before Jennie Wogan-Wells has encapsulated her combination of spoilt ingenue naivety and needy, nasal New York attention-seeking in Please Don’t Touch Me.
Jack Hooper’s Igor, with his panda eyes, wraparound cloak and ever-moving hump, is the hunchbacked gothic sidekick to the manner born, definitely weird, even creepy, but a constant source of daft Transylvanian amusement too.
Who better to play eager-to-please, Scandinavian novice lab assistant Inga than Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson. Fabulous, flirtatious, funny, no wonder the Doctor falls for her as soon as she invites him to Roll In The Hay.
The caricature European accents keep coming, none better than Helen “Bells” Spencer’s Frau Blucher, the mysterious housekeeper, whose every entry is interrupted by the neigh of a horse. Sternly seductive, severe of face, still infatuated by the late Victor Frankenstein, Spencer’s Frau delivers the show’s supreme vocal performance in He Vas My Boyfriend, with its echoes of Weimar Berlin cabaret nights, singing atop a chair.
Tom Riddolls’s Inspector Kemp is keeping his eye on Frankenstein’s activities, all the more so after Craig Kirby’s newly sparked Monster breaks free from the laboratory. An innocent abroad, Kirby’s baritone-voiced creature learns on the hoof, an outlet for typically broad humour from Brooks and co-writer Thomas Meehan as Wogan-Wells’s Elizabeth “connects” most enthusiastically with the Monster (in the manner of Bella Baxter’s “furious jumping” in Poor Things, but only heard, not seen).
Likewise, Irving Berlin’s borrowed dancefloor gem Puttin’ On The Ritz is transformed from Strictly Come Dancing-style showpiece to the Monster’s introduction to social niceties. This initiation is at once touching yet deliriously humorous too, a rare balancing act for Brooks that makes it all the better, even more so in the ever-excellent Kirby’s hands and feet as he gradually turns into Fred Astaire in Blue Skies.
This review has emphasised the gilded individual turns, but under Isherwood’s direction, the performances gel gleefully, the humour bursting out of the interactions, both physical and verbal.
The teamwork of Sam Steel’s Bertram Batram, Matthew Warry’s Felix and Kelly Stocker, Pearl Mollison, Ruby Salter, Freddie Heath and Ilana Weets, in the guise of students, horses, werewolves and angry villagers, adds to the comedic impact too.
Readman’s set design, with its science laboratory backdrop, and flamboyant costumes are as high quality as ever. Ilana Weets’s choreography is playful, sometimes character-driven, always exuberant; Sam Johnson’s nine-piece band relishes songs painted in bold, brazen colours.
Devotees of The Rocky Horror Show and Mel Brooks alike will savour “the sweet mystery of life” and the Transylvania Mania of Young Frankenstein.
Remaining performances: 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.