'Once' duo John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett conjure an imaginative, unsettling world of melancholia for this engrossing stage version of the resonant teen vampire tale.
One of the most resonant shocks of the powerful stage version of cult Swedish movie “Let the Right One In” is one of the simplest: the bringing up of the house-lights at the start of the intermission. As the spell is (temporarily) broken, audiences suddenly realize just how deeply they have been immersed in the imaginative, unsettling world of melancholia conjured by John Tiffany’s engrossing production.
The dark tale of loneliness and friendship — oh, and a teenage-looking vampire — may have been shifted from a Stockholm housing estate to a chilly Scottish forest of birch trees, but the mood and sense of mystery remain the same. It’s still the story of bullied schoolboy Oskar (Martin Quinn) whose isolation is mirrored by and cured by the watchful but dangerous Eli (Rebecca Benson) who arrives in search of blood on which to live. Some of the surrounding characters have been cut, but only those with fond memories of the celebrated cat scene will be disappointed.
In the movie, the central couple spend almost all their time gazing at each other in fear, skepticism, wonder and, to a degree, love while barely managing to complete a sentence. Expressive in close-up it would be problematic on stage. Jack Thorne’s adaptation wisely recalibrates the dialogue for the stage and the result retains the strangeness of the initially strained friendship but adds detail. Best of all, it allows space for visuals that control the audience’s emotions. The creative team not only stage leap-out-of-the-seat moments of full horror but, more importantly, weave sound, Olafur Arnalds’ bleak and bold music, light and dance to create dramatic tension underscored by permanent unease.
Regular theatergoers unfamiliar with the source material (the original novel, movie or U.S. remake “Let Me In”) are likely to be alerted to the expressive potential of a production that is the latest in a succession of visceral collaborations between Brit helmer John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett, whose previous credits include multi-award-winners “Black Watch” and “Once.” Hoggett is now billed as associate director in recognition of how completely his stylized movement is not an add-on but a governing factor in how audiences read and respond to the ricocheting temperatures of their work.
The directors create a wider range of emotions than the film supplies, which in turn creates fresh opportunities for the actors playing Oskar and Eli. Quinn’s Oskar is less palely interesting than his movie counterpart, more of a gauche, naive young teen, but that very ordinariness helps elicit sympathy. Benson’s deliberately pallid delivery initially risks monotony but cumulatively creates the crucial sense of otherness. Her individual rhythm, both vocal and physical, is at the heart of the production.
Hoggett’s highly stylized movement, most immediately apparent in the group work for subsidiary characters, prepares audiences for the non-literal approach. This is crucial for a non-naturalistic story that so riskily goes way beyond any expected range of events and emotions. The production’s success can be measured by the fact that it’s only after the end of the show that it occurs to you that engaging with things like blood-drenched moments of vampiric murder could have elicited laughter or, at best, disbelief. In fact, these vividly staged scenes shake audiences with fear, or hold them silent and rapt at, say, the sad ache of Ewan Stewart’s exhausted Hakan, whose love for Eli is never enough.
After success in its initial run in Scotland, the London premiere is winning local raves. With commercial U.K. producers already attached, its future prospects looks extremely strong. Producers at artistically ambitious U.S. venues conversant with daringly intense U.K. fare should get on a plane.