(written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan, directed by Susan Stroman)
Based on the original 1974 film, Mel Brooks’ famous comedy tells the story of Dr. Frederik Frankenstein (Hadley Fraser), pronounced ‘Fronk-on-steen’, travelling to Transylvania to settle his grandfather’s estate, where it is notorious for the murderous rampage of Frankenstein’s monster. With the help of his sidekick Igor (Ross Noble), his assistant Inga (Summer Strallen), and the estate’s housekeeper Frau Blücher (Lesley Joseph), the four attempt to recreate Victor Frankenstein’s experiments with disastrous consequences. The UK premiere of this show received a rather mixed bag of reviews, mainly due to the musical’s lack of well-written female characters and the treatment of said characters. And I must say, I agree with them.
Firstly, when thinking about the performances, it was a hit and miss. Hadley Fraser and Ross Noble were a tremendous pair and gave off such spark when it was just the two of them on stage – I probably laughed at their interactions the most. However, there was also Inga, Frederick’s assistant and love interest, played by Summer Strallen. Mel Brooks did not exactly give Strallen much to go on in terms of having an in-depth, well-rounded personality and character arc – however, Strallen still lacked the charisma necessary to make the role relatively likable and came across as 2-dimensional eye candy for Hadley Fraser’s Frederick. It did not help that Fraser and Strallen’s stage chemistry was just not apparent, making their romance forced and actually made me want their budding romance to fall to pot. Lastly, and disappointingly, I felt that the talented ensemble was wasted in this production, as the choreography for most of the numbers felt underwhelming, and in company scenes, the ensemble actually had more energy than the principal characters at points. It seemed to me the casting director mashed these people together and just expected the actors to create their own spark, but alas, a lot of particular sparks failed to ignite.
On the plus side, the set design (Beowulf Boritt) was visually epic. Rotating stone arches, multiple backgrounds, and intricate props in every room made the show feel glamourous and aesthetically colourful. Using beautiful purples and gloomy greys, the colour palette was almost trying to put rose-tinted glasses over a rundown, haunted village in Transylvania. The costume design (William Ivey Long) complimented the set design with its luxurious versions of dismal colours; for instance, the crimson, velvet jacket for Frederick, implying his wealthy and successful status as a scientist. There was also Inga’s periwinkle nightgown, expressing her modest innocence whilst accentuating a certain sensual quality. I did feel Ben Cracknell’s lighting design was uninspired at points, though the clunky and jarring vibe actually complimented the show’s style of high comedy and farcical moments.
The biggest criticism I had seen seeing surrounding the show was the misogynistic portrayal of female characters, specifically in the writing. Whilst I am a feminist, I do understand when a show is of its time – a film or show can only reflect the social norms and values of the era they were made (give or take some exceptions). However, what I take an issue with, is when there is an opportunity to update a show when its source material has backward values that would not be acceptable if it was brand new, but the production team simply decided not to do anything about it. To clarify, updating a show does not mean ‘change the plot’, it just means making sure that the audience is not laughing at a woman singing a song about how her sociopathic boyfriend used to physically and verbally abuse her. There is also a scene near the end of the show, and I am not exaggerating, where a female character almost gets raped. But because of the sheer size of her abuser’s paraphernalia, it then became OK, and was in fact funny? It did not even change the jokes about low-budget horror films from (I am presuming) the original film to make it more applicable to a modern theatre audience. I think about Broadway transfers like The Addams Family – even though they removed and added songs here and there, there was still a show that had the same roots as the original production. The original Broadway production of Young Frankenstein was in 2007, which is not that long ago!
There was a clear opportunity to remove the so apparent male gaze demonstrated in Mel Brook’s writing, which makes the show all the more disappointing. It gave me an impression that they did not want to modify it simply because they knew a brand new show with similar sexist humour would not be acceptable in modern storytelling, but a rehash of dated humour is OK because the audience will accept it is ‘of its time’. In the rise of the Me Too campaign, I would like to think we are becoming an audience where we are not tolerating these types of stories anymore. Whilst we can admit that the original film was a product of common values of the 1970s, a seemingly backward-thinking adaptation of it 10 years ago on Broadway and transferal to London in 2017 is not so acceptable.
Rating: ⭐ 1/2
Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is running at the Garrick Theatre, London with evening performances at 7.30pm Monday-Saturday, and matinee performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays.