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Will Pinchin as Jekyll with a vision of Christopher Tester's Hyde

The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde

The Old Rep

****

I must admit I have never thought Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic horror novella has worked that well when it has been brought to the stage – until now, that is.

Ross McGregor has eschewed Victorian Soho with its gas lit, foggy, cobbled streets and even the challenging transformation scenes of the respectable Jekyll into the psychotic Hyde, and of course back again, and cleverly moved the whole tale to today’s midwestern USA, the nondescript state of Indiana.

And you don’t get more up to date than this. We have Donald Trump being impeached for corruption, and the democrats are searching for a candidate to take him on in the next presidential election.

And one of the Democratic hopefuls is Henry Jekyll, a man whose only political experience is as mayor of an unnamed Indiana city. Henry wants to change politics, wants to unite people, have a more caring society, oh, and he is gay, closet gay, but gay none the less.

Only experience mayor of an Indiana city, such as, somewhere like South Bend, a Democratic Presidential hopeful looking to change politics . . . and gay? We really are up to date here.

The novel’s lawyer Gabriel John Utterson has been transformed to Gabrielle Utterson, ex-journalist and now Press secretary to Jekyll. In the novel Utterson is the narrator, searching for the truth, and Lucy Ioannou carries on the role superbly, driving the story forward.

As in the original, her Utterson is humourless, dull even, driven but with a few additions such as always with her water bottle to hand, water being, technically, the main ingredient of the contents, and while Stevenson’s lawyer had regrets and doubts about his own failings, Gabrielle has regrets and nightmares about her own past.

Henry, now a successful mayor, played with that slick, Teflon like polish of a politician by Will Pinchin, seemingly has the world at his feet . . . as long as you don’t look behind the glossy frontage. His background is science, or more pseudo-science according to his laboratory colleague Hayley Lanyon, a lovely performance from Charlie Ryall in another gender change from the book’s Dr Hastie Lanyon.

Hyde

Christopher Tester as High School teacher Edward Hyde

Hayley is the brilliant scientist who sees Jekyll’s experiments with stem cells to somehow retrain the brain and how it works to treat depression as little more than science fiction.

And then there is Hyde, and he is the real game changer. So far we have moved in time and location, the characters perhaps changing sex but still playing similar parts, but now we see Edward Hyde and Henry Jekyll together, not in fantasy, or a dream, but as definite, flesh and blood separate people. Not so much a twist as a different universe.

Christopher Tester has two roles to play, Hyde the living being and the Hyde that Stevenson, and Jekyll, imagined. The former the earnest, campaigning high school teacher, the latter, sinister, evil and dangerous and he excels in both.

The juxtaposition is achieved by a jumping backwards and forwards in time from soon after Jekyll is elected mayor with his promises of school funding and reforms and his meeting with Hyde as a teacher representative in the midst of a school strike.

We, and Hyde, find, quelle surprise as they say, that a politician’s election promises are, should we say, somewhat flexible once an election is won, which is a polite way of saying politicians are well versed in the art of talking fluent and total cobblers.

But all is not lost for the pair as Jekyll and Hyde become lovers, secret of course, not good for the polls to have a live-in gay lover apparently, and as it turns out, none to healthy to be a gay teacher either but that is a story yet to tell..

It is an interesting twist, a back story, picked up in flashbacks, as to how Jekyll and Hyde rejoined Sevenenson’s premise of good and evil being the two sides of the same person.

A new character in all this is Imogen Poole, Mr Poole having been Victorian Mr Jekyll’s butler, with suspicions about his master and helping Utterson find the truth.

Imogen is . . . let’s not beat about the bush, a prostitute and a sort of mother confessor, or at least a sounding board, for Gabrielle, played, quite wonderfully by Gabrielle Nellis-Pain. We also suspect that Gabrielle and Imogen were once, and perhaps still are, lovers.

Imogen in a silk gown, split high on her thigh exudes raw sex. She has a fine, shapely pair of legs and makes sure they are on view – it never hurts to advertise in her profession – and Gabrielle plays the part of a madame quite beautifully, alluring even off duty.

She is discrete about the clients of her establishment although she can be persuaded if spoken to often enough by Ben Franklin, if you follow my meaning.

She knows a secret about Hyde, a violent episode, but the price of silence has increased from £100 in Victorian Soho to $8,000 in today’s Indiana. That’s inflation for you.

From Stevenson’s morality tale McGregor has fashioned a taut political thriller with a high profile murder, mass shootings, America’s gun laws, or rather lack of them, drugs and all the ingredients of modern US politics thrown into the mix.

We even have the rise of the ultra-right wing, personified by one of Jekyll’s rabble rousing rivals, which prompts the retort from Imogen: “At least Trump kept his fascism to 140 characters!”.

Stevenson’s plot is still the road map, but the journey is along a different route, with different stopping points but all the familiar bases are still covered and everything is heading to much the same destination.

If you have never heard of Jekyll and Hyde, or even thought your gran used to have cornflour made by them or something, it makes no difference. This is a political thriller which stands solidly on its own two feet. If you are familiar with the story then there is a fascination in how it has become the skeleton of a new creation. Much more interesting than a mere attempt to bring the book to life – this breathes new life into it.

The acting is universally superb, every role convincing, and the set from Charlotte Cooke is deceptive simplicity with a few props, chairs, a small desk, and a few flats, two being scrims which bring the stage alive where we get scenes from the past appearing behind, campaign speeches, visions, the other end of telephone calls, and videos (Andy Ioannou and Danie Frampton) including America’s own social disease of mass shootings.

Anna Reddyhoff’s lighting is always enough to be interesting, giving areas of light and dark, much like the later Jekyll, while Alistair Lax’s sound adds drama, although I found background noises of talking coming throughat times, distracting.

My only gripe is length, 145 minutes with interval, and it could lose at least 20 minutes without it being noticed. It is an excellent, modern play, full of intrigue and interest, compelling theatre, and well worth seeing as it is - but it would benefit from some tightening up. Writer McGregor also directs with an assured confident touch and Jekyll and Hyde will be lurking around the shadows of the Old Rep to Friday, 28-02-20.

Roger Clarke

26-02-20 

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