There is plenty of beautiful music in this version of the classic tale by Robert Louis Stevenson, but do not sit in sublime expectation of hearing This is the Moment. This is not that moment at all but a new adaptation of the classic story by Eric Gracey. Following a season in Birmingham last year, the Gracey version of Jekyll and Hyde is presented by Blue Orange Theatre at The Cockpit until 6 February.
On entering the cavernous black box that is the theatre, you go into a 1930’s nightclub with a splendid art deco design in black and silver. The club’s owner suavely greets you and Pete Lee is playing, exceptionally well, smooth jazz standards on the grand piano. This promises to be an innovative slant on a story usually set in the Victorian era in which it was written.
The question at the end of the evening is: What is gained from this change? For me, the answer was: “Not much, if anything”.
Mark Webster directed and designed this production and aspects of his overall concept for this production are not without merit and would benefit with further refinement.
Some directorial decisions work against the clarity of the narrative. The biggest anomaly concerns the doubling of roles.
In a play where duality in the nature of man is a key element, given corporeal form in the shape of the titular Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, some of the doubling of the supporting cast might better have been avoided. With too little obvious change in appearance or mannerism, it was often confusing as to which character an actor was playing from one scene to the next. The most marked example occurred early on in the play where Sarah Gain, playing Constance, exited the stage only to return almost immediately as an entirely different character, Alice, with no discernible way to identify the change in character. She appeared to be the same woman; dressed the same way, minus her overcoat.
Perhaps this was some subtle reinforcement of Stevenson’s central notion – that different characteristics can exist concurrently in the one individual, but, if that was so, Webster was not clear enough in expressing his intention. The story of Jekyll and Hyde is complicated enough without unnecessary distractions about which character is speaking.
The set and costumes firmly establish the chosen era of 1930’s. The nightclub set serves as a generic backdrop for all scenes thus maintaining the presence of the music behind all the action. This works very well in some scenes, especially those containing violence.
In the first scene set in the house of Dr Jekyll, however, the tinkling music underneath the dialogue is a distraction and adds little to the scene. Less underscoring in these early scenes would have increased the impact both of the dialogue in those scenes and the depth of relevance to the action of the subsequent musical support to scenes. On the plus side, it was refreshing to hear a play presented without any amplification of voice.
Jon Bates’ lighting design uses a limited palette very effectively and but there is no doubt his design could have benefited had further equipment been available to permit more variation in mood. Clearer changes in lighting states may also have made it more obvious that action was occurring in locations different from the nightclub.
The pivotal dual roles, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are played by Oliver Hume who establishes a clear delineation between the two sides of Dr Jekyll. Hume is most convincing as Mr Hyde, producing a powerful and menacing performance that stays with you. The inevitable end for both Jekyll and Hyde is well set up and thanks to Hume’s skill, the audience is in sympathy with the leading man/anti-hero who has ventured, gained, lost control and then life in his unrelenting quest for knowledge.
Stuart Horobin has a remarkable capacity for lightning quick changes of costume and character and is particularly effective in his many roles. His strength is in his physicality; subtly changing his energy and body language, Horobin imbues each of his characters with distinctive and identifiable traits. Horobin’s best character was Inspector Newman, the doggedly determined police man.
As Constance, Dr Jekyll’s fiancé, Gain gives her strongest performance particularly in the scenes when Constance is mystified and vulnerable owing to Jekyll’s refusal to see her. Daniel Blacker, likewise, is most convincing in his role as Mr John Utterson. The stable and supportive nature of Utterson is played with truth and clarity. Nicola Foxfield handles the bulk of the singing in the show as Rose the nightclub singer. Ms Foxfield not only sang the jazz standards nicely but also played the victim credibly.
The main issue is with the pace and flow of the whole play rather than individual performances. The performance builds to a satisfying climax in the second half and then putters on too long towards its ending. After the killing of Rose there should be more build in the tension; instead, there are lots of changes created by short scenes. The pace suffers from a lack of momentum.
There is much to like about this production. The story is a classic and doesn’t tire with retelling or adaptation; the music is charming and at times evocative; the piano playing is sublime. Generally, the acting is sufficient, but rarely transcends the kinds of performances that might be found in a competent community theatre group.
Despite a plethora of good ideas and some pleasing performances, overall Webster’s production lacks polish and sparkle.