jekyll or hyde

Nicholas Shaw as Dr Jekyll . . . or is it Mr Hyde . . .  Pictures: Grant Archer

Jekyll and Hyde

 Derby Theatre


This is not the first time that this story, originally a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1886, has been presented as a play.

It was adapted for theatre in 1887 as a four-act play by Thomas Russell Sullivan in collaboration with the actor Richard Mansfield. Sullivan made several changes to the story; which in turn has evolved in the many subsequent film and television versions.

This is an immense advantage for Neil Bartlett OBE,who has written this adaptation, offering him maximum leeway in fashioning the narrative for a 21st century audience almost 140 years on. Although a familiar tale, few have read the 1886 original anyway!

The most significant shift is the presence of three women who collaborate to unpick the strange events which unfold led by Dr Stevenson (Polly Lister).

Director Sarah Brigham starts the show at curtain up with a supernatural, spiritual tinge as Dr Lanyon (Charlie Buckland), The Inspector (James Morrell), Mr Enfield (Craig Painting), Mr Guest (Levi Payne) and Mr Utterson (Robert Vernon) provide an eerie choral, ensemble spoken word introduction on the terracing of what appears to be a dissection theatre, the figures freezing and unfreezing from ghostly mannequins to action figures.

Dr Jekyll (Nicholas Shaw) is a brooding presence at the back of, and above, the stage, omnipresent and menacing. He is a demented, dark, mysterious, malevolent figure transforming into Mr Hyde using an inspired combination of costume and physical rhythm.

In juxtaposition Dr Stevenson (Polly Lister) drives the narrative along, resourceful, inquisitive and relentless, amidst the shadowy male figures.

doc stevenson

Polly Lister as Dr Stevenson

Tife Kusoro is her energetic sidekick with a 21st century injection of Girl Power. Dr Stevenson is an Everyman creation, almost a part of the observing audience. She follows the clues until she finally works out the solution to the mystery, as we the audience do, that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same.

Stevenson solves the case in both a criminal and psychological sense, the dissection theatre doubling as a court room and the audience frequently being addressed directly. Bartlett avoids the trap of making this a murder mystery. Stevenson is not merely investigating the case, she is exploring a male dominated world, and underworld, of privilege and wrongdoing. In Bartlett’s hands this is as much about Stevenson as it is about Dr Jekyll, a challenge which Lister embraces with considerable aplomb.

The theme of male power, cliques and privilege has a contemporary resonance in the guise of recent American Presidents and British Prime Ministers and their self- delusion. In Dr Jekyll we are given a glimpse inside of the head of such an individual in a masterclass of acting by Nicholas Shaw. 

Bartlett is an artistic polymath, director, performer, translator and writer. His previous adaptations of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol have certainly prepared him for this faithful and authentic slice of Victoriana which veers from the fantastic to visceral realism at the flick of a switch with a sprinkling of the magical included too, courtesy of Philip Bond.

Jekyll group

Craig Painting (Mr Enfield) left,; Charlie Buckland (Dr Lanyon); Nicholas Shaw (Jekyll and Hyde); Robert Vernon (Dr Lanyon) and Levi Payne (Mr Guest)

Improbably, and memorably, we are also treated to song, Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, and pin sharp choreography and movement, by Deb Pugh, most notably in the memorable Top Hat ( and cane) dance murder scene which has more than a nod to Kubrick’s, A Clockwork orange.

The single set (Jessica Curtis) is basic and multilevel providing multiple exits and entrances whose centrepiece is a mysterious door. The intermittently flickering lighting (Simeon Miller) is atmospheric, white light illuminating the shadowy browns and blacks of the costumes and set complimented by Ivan Stotts stark, dissonant staccato sound and music.

The running time of under 2 hours, including interval, is short, as is the original novella. This is a big advantage, as the story, and production, packs a fast moving punch offering maximum impact. There is no flab in the script. The actors show, they don’t tell, engaging the audience throughout.

It has a dream-like quality, weird and surreal, a phantasmagoria of the real and illusory. This sometimes affects the production’s narrative coherence, but if you tune in, and zone out, all will be well.

This production sits comfortably alongside the very best of what Derby Theatre and Sarah Brigham have produced in recent years, her trademark integration of movement, sound, light and drama are compelling, and a triumph. The show runs until 22nd October.

Gary Longden


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