Frankenstein: How To Make a Monster
Aziza Amari Brown, Nathaniel Forder-Staple, Aminita Francis, Alex Hackett, Nadine Rose Johnson and Tyler Worthington inspired by Mary Shelley’s original story
Battersea Arts Centre and BAC Beatbox Academy
Manchester is currently attracting some radical re-workings of classical literature. Wise Children’s gonzo version of Wuthering Heights is followed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein performed as a mixture of theatre and beatbox gig.
No musical instruments are involved in beatboxing, rather they, along with drum machines and turntables, are mimicked by performers using their mouth, lips, tongue and voice. Appropriately for a show about a creature stitched together from various sources, the influences upon Frankenstein: How To Make a Monster are not limited to Mary Shelley’s novel but extend to illustrate how modern-day monsters are made.
Tribute is paid early to James Whale’s marvellous movie version with a maniacal cry of "It’s alive" and gothic laughter. Co-directors Conrad Murray and David Cumming set an oppressive atmosphere of paranoia and encroaching violence. Sherry Coenen’s lighting is gloomy—a series of candle bulbs hang from the ceiling—and the six performers are dressed uniformly in drab, modern, shapeless clothes: grey hoodies and dark pants. The performances are not limited to vocals, with the cast lurching around the stage like outcasts or ganging up on, and menacingly surrounding, one of their colleagues. Violence is suggested both physically and lyrically—as one performer articulates the creature’s sense of outrage and grievance another mimes his rage and its consequences.
A sympathetic attitude is taken towards the creature who is presented as an outcast more sinned against than sinning—someone who behaves like a devil because he cannot be an angel. The creature’s sense of alienation is shared with the cast lyrically recalling how criticism that they were not good enough left them feeling ostracised.
The themes of Shelley’s novel—alienation, the dangers of ambition and science allowed to go too far—are extended to the present day, showing the corrosive effects of social media, Internet bullying and cancel culture. Sensory overload arising from the explosive growth of information is captured with rapid vocal performances and a cast member twitching compulsively as if subjected to constant shocks.
The success of the audience involvement in the show is variable. The opening involves explaining the basic concepts of beatboxing and persuading the audience to have a go. Like most examples of enforced participation, it is a bit embarrassing. However, a series of insults exchanged between cast members builds an horrific, unstoppable momentum and spills off the stage to great effect. The cast sneering down at the front row criticising the dress sense of those attending goes even further as a spotlight is produced to pick out victims throughout the theatre. The overlapping vocals of the cast become histrionic, creating the frightening impression of a baying mob getting out of hand.
There is a snobbish attitude towards abstract performers that maintains they could probably do it the conventional way if they made the effort. The cast prove the point with impressive covers of songs by The Prodigy, James Brown and Ray Charles performed as the body parts of the creature are assembled. Vocally, the cast move the show from a church choir to a full-on rave.
Frankenstein: How To Make a Monster has a loose structure with ABH (Alex Hackett) acting as a narrator / master of ceremonies introducing sections and linking them together. The end, however, feels abrupt without a concluding statement.
BAC Beatbox Academy, which produced the show, seems determined to not only entertain but also to make converts to the cause. The show opens with two sets of young beatboxers from the area being given the chance to perform on stage. It is a generous gesture but, like many evangelists, BAC Beatbox Academy does not know when to stop. The show is followed by the cast, and guest, showing off their vocal prowess in a series of duels. Without the rough context offered by the Frankenstein concept, this becomes an exercise in technique—like singers showing off by hitting a series of high notes. With Frankenstein: How To Make a Monster, less might have been more.
Reviewer: David Cunningham