The Birmingham Old Rep


Franz Kafka would have loved Brexit, or at least the chaos and illogical mess our leaders have managed to create with no escape in sight.

It is Kafka’s stock in trade, creating a situation which evokes feelings of helplessness, nightmare situations with no way out in view, in short, as has been noted to describe the shenanigans currently afflicting Westminster, Kafkaesque.

Born in Prague, he is one of the few writers with a style so distinct and an importance in literature so great to have his name celebrated in an adjective in common usage.

The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) was written in 1912 and published in Leipzig in 1915 as the First World War, a year in, was already flexing its murderous muscles.

It tells the story of a harassed travelling salesman, under constant pressure from his manager and the opening line of the novel tells it all.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin

He had been transformed into an ungeheures Ungeziefer – Ungeziefer being an all-encompassing German term for unwanted, unloved, unclean animals.

Gregor has overslept and the uncaring, unfeeling manager comes to see why he has not turned up for work but when he finally opens the door to reveal the start of his grotesque physical changes his mother faints, his manager rushes out and his family are horrified and repulsed.

His sister Grete takes food in every day as he becomes more and more transformed, spending time climbing walls and walking on the ceiling.

Having a giant insect or whatever thing he had become as a son or brother puts an ever increasing strain on the family leading to a sad climax where we are never sure whether we are seeing a deliberate or natural act.

What it all means has as many interpretations as people who have tried to explain it. Theories include Gregor being transformed into a helpless creature by the pressure of a world dominated by ever more demanding work. Others saw the transforation really about Grete growing from girl to beautiful woman.

Theories include religious interpretations or Gregor remaining human but being changed as a person by the world around him. Who knows? All we do know is that even in Kafka’s native Kingdom of Bohemia people didn’t wake up as beetles or whatever or I am sure we would have heard about it.

Adapted for the stage by Beyond the Horizon, Metamorphosis is . . . well , , , weird. It is beautifully acted, directed with pace and purpose and even has its lighter moments, or as light as you get with a giant cousin of a cockroach walking across the ceiling in the back bedroom.

The humour comes from Luke Hardwell who could retire at the end of the run if he is being paid full Equity rates  for every part he plays – seven in all.

He is the manager, the client, the doctor, the doctor’s receptionist, the lodger and everyone else. He storms around the stage wide eyed and displaying 50 shades of madness. His manager is a slave driver who sees salesmen merely as sales, with the men being worked to an early grave. His doctor’s receptionist has a set patter warning of a two hour wait despite no one waiting - until she/he sees Gregor, and puts him through immediately, but not as an urgent case, merely as a novelty.

His doctor is, should we say, unconventional, fascinated by Gregor as a freak, chucking a bottle of pills to clear it up in a week or so every visit, while the lodger is a bully, demanding, arrogant and slightly sinister – until he spots Gregor and runs for the hills making threats and refusing to pay rent.

Gregor is a memorable performance from Adam Lloyd-James, who also happens to be co-director with Matilda Dickinson and the producer.

As a human he has a couple of speeches which must tax memory, one in particular, a quickfire rant at his manager as he faces losing his job after making no sales, mostly caused by repulsing customers by the insect bits popping out on his face.

His gradual transformation is cleverly done but the play only works if we start to have empathy for him and his situation and that depends entirely upon his performance.

Make up (Sarah Luscombe) is only part of it, his physical changes, his shape and movement create the changes. To his credit we start to feel for him and the inevitable end brings a feeling of both sorrow and relief. As he loses the ability to speak or move freely, his only link with the family is listening through the walls behind a locked door – and that denial of human contact, even of the simple condition of being human engenders a feeling of sadness.


Liz Hume as the mother fusses around, a housewife who finds it difficult to abandon her son and tries to carry on as normal, perhaps to forget or at least pretend nothing had changed.

 Mike Harley is the father, off work for five years with an unspecified illness, forced to return to work as the family lose Gregor’s income – even taking over his son’s job. He is the one who resents, even hates his son, viciously attacking him when he comes out of his room.

Then there is Grete, a fine performance from Ellie Ekers. Grete is a musical student who dreams of going to the Conservatoire. In the book she is a violinist, in the play, a singer and songwriter singing the song she has written.

The song, incidentally, is Beneath The Seams by Bath folk singer-songwriter Pasha Finn.

Grete is the one who remains in contact with her brother, taking him food each day, the only one to talk to him, to try to understand, so much so that when she finally turns on him and even unites the family against him, it is a shock. It might be sensible, it might be understandable, it might even be the only solution, but it still feels like an act of betrayal.

The play keeps the essence of the novel, whatever that essence is, and you can add your own interpretation to the scores of theories that are already out there. The set is simple, two doors in isolation, one to the Samsa apartment and anywhere else, one into Gregor’s room with bed and chest of drawers, then the Samsa’s kitchen with a table and chairs.

Lighting from Joe Samuels helps to highlight scenes, creating separate stages within one set, while Finn MacNeil has done a good job on sound with Gregor’s thoughts played offstage – which, at times, involves some good timing on-stage to tie in with the thoughts played off.

It is not the easiest watch, but is intriguing, and rather like Gregor’s metamorphosis, it grows on you, By the second act you are involved.

The novel is seen as a landmark in literature and transferring the page to stage is a difficult task which Beyond the Horizon and co-producers Birmingham Old Rep have managed with a degree of success.

The bizarre elements, irony and absurdity of Kafka is difficult enough to translate into English from his idiosyncratic German – illustrated by the number of different translations - and to then translate it again to the stage adds another layer of difficulty, but this production has made a decent fist of it giving a taste of a Kafkaesque world beyond reason. It is powerful and disturbing in equal mesaure . To 02-02-19 and then on tour.

Roger Clarke


Beyond The Horizon

Index page Old Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre