By Tin Shed Theatre Company, at The Riverfront
It has been nearly two hundred years since Mary Shelly first published her genre defining Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and there have been nearly as many notable retellings of her darkly twisted story as there have been of some Shakespearean classics. The notion that man has the capability to create, control and coerce life has fuelled the imagination of audiences for generations. But the issue that arises from recreating an infamous narrative is that many productions offer little, if any, new insights into the original work, instead relying upon hackneyed clichés and predictable interpretations. There is often no tangible anticipation or excitement when revisiting any over told narrative; the promise of enjoyment then relies solely on the performance of the piece as opposed to joy of a fresh story unravelling in front of your very eyes. Witness the innumerable retellings of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, many of which are perfectly executed and adequately performed but are lacking in any wonder or emotional drama since the narrative is prosaic and overly familiar. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I entered the curious world of the Tin Shed Theatre Company’s Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow.
The production is presented to the audience as a Victorian freak show, in which the Master of Ceremonies, Julius M Barker (Justin Cliffe), introduces a selection of beautifully dark and comic ‘freaks’ each of whom will assist in the retelling of Mary Shelly’s magnum opus. Barker is portrayed as a PT Barnum-esque character that is willing to regale us with exotic stories of adventure and mystery, which would impress even H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne, whilst coercing his motley crew of performers through fear and violence. Assisting, or hindering, Barker’s dramatic reinterpretation are Sangieve (Antonio Rimola), the Freakshow’s Lobster Mind Reader, Bathilda (Georgina Harris) as the Bearded Lady and The Monster (Aled Wyn-Thomas).
At times Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow is opium fuelled and whimsically Vaudevillian; the charmingly exaggerated delivery is pure pantomime. This well paced production also allows for a few moments of genuinely touching drama as the distinction between the play and the play with in a play, blurs. The comic portrayal of Victor Frankenstein’s toil is assisted by the use of puppetry and projected animation, which supplements the narration, and allows the audience to focus on the development of the plot.
Hightlighting the Victorian, and possibly our own, macabre fascination with ‘gruesome’ human novelties, Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow examines the same issues that Mary Shelly contemplated in her original story. The themes of monstrosity, responsibility and creation are all investigated and considered through well defined parallels in the two stories. This certainly is not a staid retelling of a classic text; instead it is a touching recreation within an innovative and unique framework. In addition, the performances in each of the roles is worthy of high praise; Justin Cliffe as Barker was both enthralling and suitably menacing; Antonio Rimola as the fearful Sangieve was humorous and believable; Georgina Harris as the split personas of Bathilda was charming and delightfully curious; and Aled Wyn-Thomas was captivating as The Monster and delivered a genuine pathos in the role. Special mention must be given to Cliffe and Rimola for writing an enchanting script and to Cliffe on his efficient direction.
The only potential drawback of the production was the scene in which Julius M Barker punishes The Monster for his stilted acting as Frankenstein’s monster and takes a hiatus from the retelling of Mary Shelly’s novel. This scene felt clunky and unnecessary, stalling the pace of the play in order to develop the relationship between Bathilda and The Monster. But this is just a minor consideration and does little to stop the manic Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow from being a truly wondrous proposition.
This was a homecoming to Newport for Tin Shed Theatre Company and they delivered a spectacle that will live long in the memory. It would be easy to slip into faux Halloween references and gothic clichés (a monstrous performance, a ghoulish good time, etc) but this production deserves better than these easy, flippant platitudes. It stands on its own merits as a production that is innovative, challenging and fresh. Tin Shed Theatre Company are the rising stars of Welsh theatre and with productions like Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow they are quickly becoming essential.