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Jekyll & Hyde
Published on Saturday, 03 August 2013

3 stars

Assembly Roxy
31 Jul, 1-12, 14-25 Aug, 10:45pm-11:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

For an example of a piece of literature that’s been ruined by its own fame, look no further than Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. Written as a mystery thriller, Stevenson’s novella – together with all faithful adaptations of it – is comprehensively spoiled by the simple fact that everyone now knows the secret of Jekyll’s double life. And so, for this stylish production, Fringe-First-winning playwright Jonathan Holloway has adopted a radical solution: yes, we think we know the story… but he’s gone ahead and changed it.

A gloomily elegant backdrop, evoking a hodge-podge of windows somewhere in London, sets the scene for our meeting with the unfortunate Dr Jekyll. In one specific but very important regard, Jekyll won’t be quite the character you were expecting; and in Holloway’s hands, the struggle with alter-ego Hyde becomes the jumping-off point for a novel power-play, between a controlling Jekyll and the supplicant narrator Utterson. It’s a well-conceived tweak to a well-worn plot, and Utterson’s decline from authority to wretchedness neatly parallels Jekyll’s plight in Stevenson’s original.

But it’s a bold man who meddles with one of Edinburgh’s best-loved authors, and I’m afraid other aspects of Holloway’s rework didn’t quite carry me along. The dénouement turns on an all-new explanation for Jekyll’s ill-starred experiments, which successfully played to modern concerns but came a bit too much from left-field for me. The occasionally-grotesque imagery often worked well, but one particular picture that’s seared in my mind owed rather more to shock than to artistry. And though I enjoyed a few delicious moments of full-on wailing melodrama, the piece as a whole felt a little unbalanced, as though it hadn’t quite decided whether to play things for laughs or aim to be genuinely chilling.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some creepy moments: perhaps the most memorable comes near to the beginning, when an ingeniously simply scene change casts Utterson and his companion, Enfield, into the depths of Hyde’s lair. Enfield himself, described by Stevenson as a “well-known man about town”, is an entertainingly updated figure who successfully injects some comic relief. And Laurence Osborne’s original score, performed live on-stage, does much to contribute to a sense of menace – albeit that I wished it had been more consistently maintained.

The ending, though, was frustrating, with crux scenes played out on the floor and invisible to all but the first couple of rows of the audience. I did see this play very early in its run, so glitches like that one may well be corrected as time goes on. For now though, despite occasional lapses, this is still a well-designed and well-performed production – offering an interesting new spin on a familiar tale.

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