REVIEW: Tilted Wig in Frankenstein, York Theatre Royal ****

Eleanor McLoughlin’s Doctor Victoria Frankenstein and Cameron Robertson’s The Creature in Tilted Wig’s Frankenstein

AFTER their liaison with York Theatre Royal for a tour of Juliet Forster’s production of Around The World In 80 Days earlier this year, Tilted Wig make a welcome return north with Frankenstein. In Halloween season, as chance would have it, in a tour running from September 14 to November 25.

Forget Halloween. This is not Frankenstein’s monster of six Hammer horror films or Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. This is Frankenstein reimagined by Séan Aydon after Mary Shelley, as the cover to Tilted Wig’s elegantly designed programme denotes.

An earnest, deadly serious, deeply humanitarian Frankenstein with only one shard of humour and two significant changes: scientist Doctor Victor Frankenstein has become Doctor Victoria Frankenstein (Eleanor McLoughlin), and the gothic sci-fi novel’s 1818 setting has moved to wartime 1943 in Poland.

Neither the Nazis, nor the Second World War in name is mentioned, but the shadow of eugenics, and indirectly the creation of a master race, an Aryan nirvana, casts a dark shadow over Doctor Frankenstein’s experiments and the ruthless university philosophy of Basienka Blake’s Richter.

Aydon’s production opens in a dry ice fog in a wooden hut, the spartan emergency home of Blake’s first character, Captain. A frantic knock on the door: McLoughlin’s exhausted Victoria Frankenstein is seeking shelter and sustenance.

Here are two women “hiding from their past at what feels like the very end of the world”. One of them, Frankenstein, has a terrifying story to tell; the other has a gun in her hand, demanding that she tell it.

Whereupon Nicky Bunch’s set peels back to reveal Frankenstein’s laboratory, where a storm is brewing on the perfect night for sufficient electricity to spark her creation, made from body parts, into life.

In Bunch’s design, the profusion of laboratory jars lights up,like beacons, as if in response to Doctor Frankenstein’s excitement at this golden opportunity for scientific progress. She will share her exact plans with Francine (Annette Hannah in her impressive professional theatre debut), but not with husband Henry (Dale Mathurin), and nor with her sister Elizabeth. On her first visit in six months, with no letters home in that time, Victoria is too preoccupied to have dinner with her.

The Creature’s sudden surge into life as the storm crackles is an electrifying piece of theatre in every way, visually, aurally, musically: the peak of Eamonn O’Dwyer’s sound designs in a scree of discordant strings. Horrifying, remarkable, breathtaking, amid the rusted operating equipment.

Aydon has created a thriller as much as a horror story, one with a sense of moral responsibility that suits its wartime setting but resonates anew in our new age of artificial intelligence and robotics and our fears over the route this AI is taking.

Aydon’s exploration of “the very fabric of what makes us human and the ultimate cost of chasing ‘perfection’” puts both McLoughlin’s Frankenstein and Cameron Robertson’s Creature under the spotlight.

She is thrilled anew at the possibility of creating a partner for The Creature, at his demand, until she is challenged by Hannah’s Francine over her own status, as a dwarf. Where does that fit in with this pursuit of “perfection”? 

A shattering moment, indeed, one that confronts all human experimentation and scientific exploration, just as in Michael Mann’s film Oppenheimer this summer.

Robertson’s Creature is never given a name by Doctor Frankenstein. He calls her “Mother” when they finally meet after his escape on that first night through a broken window. Another deeply impactful moment that makes Aydon’s production so powerful in its transition from Shelley’s series of letters to theatre of the imagination, a ghost story of the haunted Frankenstein.

The Creature, left to fend for himself, teaches himself how to talk, to learn Shakespeare too. That will make for an extraordinarily moving finale when The Creature reprises Hamlet’s final speech:  What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

“The rest is silence,” he concludes, just as Hamlet did. Silence does indeed fall across the Theatre Royal auditorium, but then explosive applause follows, and the conversations begin.

A Frankenstein for today, a cautionary tale with a fearful message for tomorrow, Tilted Wig’s reinvention demands to be seen.  

Tilted Wig in Frankenstein, York Theatre Royal, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or Not suitable for under 12s.

Tilted Wig reimagine Frankenstein with a female Doctor and a Second World War setting in Halloween run at Theatre Royal

Eleanor McLoughlin as Doctor Victoria Frankenstein and Cameron Robertson as The Creature in Tilted Wig’s Frankenstein, on tour at York Theatre Royal. All pictures: Anthony Robling

TILTED Wig’s Frankenstein is an electrifying reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Gothic 19th century horror story, now set in 1943, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday for the Halloween season.

While Europe tears itself apart, two women hide from their past at what feels like the very end of the world. One of them has a terrifying story to tell.

Adapted and directed by Sean Aydon, this new thriller explores the very fabric of what makes us human and the ultimate cost of chasing “perfection”, with a cast led by Eleanor McLoughlin as Doctor Victoria Frankenstein, alongside Basienka Blake as Captain/Richter, Cameron Robertson as The Creature, Dale Mathurin as Henry, Lula Marsh as Elizabeth and Annette Hannah as Francine. 

“When I first approached the script, I wanted to make it feel more contemporary, to relate more to the ethical questions of today and to make it feel more real,” says Séan. “But setting it in 2023 felt too clean and clinical. There is something far less scary about lasers and steel in comparison to rusted operating equipment.”

Why pick the Second World War? “There is no historical context that we have a better shared understanding than that of World War II. We are all aware of the horrors of the time, and by setting our play amongst them it raises the stakes immeasurably; the Doctor’s experiments have the power to change the whole world in a way we can all imagine,” says Séan.

“By exploring it through the prism of that time, a world where eugenics and racial purity were growing in popularity, I’m also hoping that the audience question the ethics of today and the dangerous path that chasing ‘perfection’ leads to.”

Eleanor McLoughlin’s Doctor Victoria Frankenstein and Lula Marsh’s Elizabeth in a scene from Tilted Wig’s Frankenstein

Séan’s gender swap of Shelley’s protagonist, transforming Victor to Victoria Frankenstein, influences the play’s dynamics and overall message. “The biggest impact of having a female doctor is the use of the word ‘mother’ and all the connotations that go with it,” he says.

“When the Creature calls her ‘Mother’ it’s a chilling reminder of the responsibility we have when creating life and how distorted the relationship can become.”

Séan approached the original text as a starting point for an entirely new play. Although major plot points remain intact, little dialogue was lifted from the novel, allowing for the exploration of Shelley’s ideas in a fresh context.

“The book itself is not particularly theatrical; it is told in a series of letters. But I wanted to retain that element of it feeling like a ‘ghost story’ told in the past tense,” he says. “I love the idea of two people sitting by a fire, telling a story that grows in the audience’s mind until the tension is almost unbearable. True fear exists in the imagination.”

Doctor Frankenstein’s story is enduringly popular, resulting in interpretations over the years on both stage and screen. Next up, Emma Stone will be a female Frankenstein’s monster in the upcoming film Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

Boris Karloff’s 1931 creature is often lauded as definitive, while the 1957 Hammer horror reworking featuring Christopher Lee spawned six sequels. Less scary, but still impactful, was Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody, Young Frankenstein, starring and co-written by Gene Wilder.

Dale Mathurin’s Henry in Séan Aydon’s production of Frankenstein

In 1999, Frankenstein’s story received a somewhat different treatment in the direct-to-video Alvin And The Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein. In 2012, Tim Burton’s stop-motion Frankenweenie was voiced by the likes of Winona Ryder, Martin Landau and Martin Short.

At the National Theatre, London, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in Danny Boyle’s 2011 production, subsequently sharing the Laurence Olivier Award and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play.

Séan attributes this endless fascination to several factors: Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel, still captivating audiences as scientific advancements bring its themes closer to reality.

Secondly, its themes are timeless: humanity’s responsibility toward one another is questioned continually, while the rise of AI [artificial intelligence] has thrust the progress of science and technology into the news headlines.

Thirdly, the eternal question of nature versus nurture will always strike a nerve with parents and carers.

Horror stories on stage and screen represent our inherent desire to be scared. Whereas cinema crafts realistic portrayals of horror, theatre taps into the power of the imagination and the present moment in an immersive experience that heightens the tension and fear.

Eleanor McLoughlin’s Doctor Victoria Frankenstein at work on creating The Creature

Witness Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories that terrified Grand Opera House audiences in York in March 2020 or Robert Icke’s psychological horror adaptations.

Now comes Tilted Wig’s reinvention of Frankenstein. “I want people to leave realising they haven’t relaxed any of the muscles in their body for the last hour,” says Séan.

“If you love gripping drama; if you love a good story well told; if you want to be laughing and before you know it find your heart in your mouth; if you want to be left arguing about which character was in the right for the next few days, you should book to see Frankenstein.”

Tilted Wig in Frankenstein, York Theatre Royal, October 24 and 26 to 28, 7.30pm; October 25 and 26, 2pm; October 28, 2.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or Not suitable for under 12s.

Did you know?

SEAN Aydon was assistant director on the world premiere of Tom Fletcher’s The Christmasaurus at the Hammersmith Apollo, London, and adapted and directed the national tour of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

Did you know too?

TILTED Wig’s Frankenstein features an original score by Eamonn O’Dwyer, who provided the score for Shakespeare Rose Theatre’s Twelfth Night and Henry V in York in 2019.