Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster/Host (Online review)

Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster/Host (Online review)

As my many Tweets this week might attest there is quite a bit of online theatre material out there that is Halloween related and while I’d seen some of it already it is proving to be a bit of a race to fit the rest in before the big day (night?). So I thought I should tackle a couple of the shorter pieces together. As it turned out, and despite paying homage to one of its most famous icons, the first of these had very little to do with Halloween. The second, using a format completely of 2020, was along more traditionally scary lines though with a modern twist.

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Anyway, let’s clear up one thing straight away. Frankenstein: How To make A Monster isn’t the piece of online theatre I expected it would be. True it’s connected to a stage production and a highly successful one at that coming originally from the Beatbox Academy at BAC (Battersea Arts Centre). That show featured a reimagining of Mary Shelley’s novel concentrating on some of the key themes such as loneliness, abuse and understanding one’s place in the world. The BBC’s programme is effectively a reimagining of that reimagining in which some of the elements of the original show are delivered alongside documentary style interludes in which the six performers share their thoughts on the modern world they inhabit, particularly how contemporary monsters are created; they also talk about how they devised the show. While all of this is of some interest it does make for a rather disjointed and random half hour with no attempt at a narrative thread meaning that any coherence is lost. Perhaps this is deliberate and there to make a point about the assault on the senses and our sensibilities which modern day living has become.

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There is no denying, though, the skill that the six performers have. As the introduction makes clear, every sound in the programme is made by the human voice – a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards. The songs which are delivered range from tender to outraged and feature some surprising harmonies alongside the clicks, wooshes and hums which are the trademarks of the artform. That said, I didn’t feel the programme did the show justice – as the original was only an hour it would have been so much more satisfying to film the piece in its entirety without the intervening profiles. Oh, and if you’re watching it because it’s Halloween then be warned – something less conventionally scary you are unlikely to see. That said, there will be occasions during the performances when the sounds used will make the hairs on the back of your neck stick up.

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Feeling somewhat unsatiated as far as my Halloween horror fix was concerned, I turned to a new play called Host by Sam Essame, artistic director of Danse Macabre and presented via the Isle of Dogs venue The Space. This is a piece specifically for Zoom and as the characters in the narrative are all supposed to be on a video sharing platform the content and form are a happy marriage. Mind you that is just about the only happy aspect to the play. Fay, an ex-classroom teacher has turned to private tutoring over the internet; Julia is the latest addition to her roster of students. She is 15, completely disaffected and has been kept off school by her parents; she only wants to do “normal English” and is at first even resistant to that. They are studying Jabberwocky; unless the syllabus has changed radically this is most definitely not a GCSE poem but, of course, its about a monster so, in that sense, it works thematically. Julia repeatedly tries to find ways to hijack the tutorial and talk about anything and everything but the work in hand. As an ex-English teacher myself I can totally recognise the situation which Essame has conjured up and was admiring of Fay’s patience as she finds various ways to keep her wayward student on track.

Gradually more of both Julia’s and Fay’s lives are revealed and a bond starts to form across the ether. Many questions start to arise for the audience – why exactly did Fay leave the job she claims to have loved, just why has Julia been kept off school and what is the basis of her trauma, what is going on with her parents Graham and Zara who come across as both overly protective but also systematically abusive, and who is the mysterious Lewis? There is also something lurking in the corner of Julia’s (and our vision). This last aspect is particularly creepy and gradually we realise that the title of the piece does not only refer to the video call organiser but something far more sinister….I’m going to stop there, before I start giving the game away but I will say I could have done with a more sharply focused ending.

As the piece was written with Zoom in mind it works particularly well and any slight glitches can be made to seem intentional. Lisa Millar’s direction does a fine job of knitting the many short scenes together. I felt that more thought needed to be given towards the lighting states particularly towards the end – it is difficult to major in a horror atmosphere when the lights are too bright. The shadows on the wall could have been more distinct too. The performances were definitely the strong point and I completely believed in the developing relationship between Fay (Annemarie Anang) and Julia (Gracie Peters); the latter particularly conveyed youthful petulance segueing into frightened and manipulated young girl as the piece progressed. The harder edge of the parents (Daniel Robinson and Rebecca McKinnis) was also convincingly done. It seems that the three actors playing the family were already in a bubble. This was a real stroke of luck as this meant they could convincingly appear on the same screen which gave this Zoom play rather more edge and bite and helped the narrative to work. The play is not on for long – so hurry to the website and get booked in.

Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster is available on the BBC iPlayer – click here

Host is a live Zoom event from Danse Macabre at The Space – click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

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