Frankenstein: The Musical
Howard Coggins and Stu Mcloughlin, based on the book by Mary Shelley
Factory Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol
If it’s a gothic-infused dose of silliness that you’re after, look no further than Living Spit’s revival of their musical comedy Frankenstein, first developed pre-pandemic in conjunction with Salisbury Playhouse. At times its humour is baggier and even more preposterous than a pair of the lovable duo’s white cotton underpants (much in evidence during the show), but the rich seam of witty ribaldry running throughout really is vintage Living Spit.
The bones of Mary Shelley’s nineteenth century horror story are all here, retold by Howard Coggins as Victor Frankenstein and Stu Mcloughlin playing the crazed doctor’s repulsive patchwork creature. There are some irreverent additions: Frankenstein is not only tortured by the untimely death of his mother, but also by the sad passing of his pet hamster Greg. His younger brother William is played by a giant-tiddlywinks-loving puppet. There are puns aplenty and flashbacks-within-flashbacks to explain why we find Frankenstein at the beginning in a dark, chilly graveyard, prising open a coffin and recycling parts from a recently deceased corpse called Malcolm.
In the original production, Coggins and Mcloughlin were joined by a four-piece band to provide additional music and stagecraft, but today’s straitened circumstances call for a little more DIY. Their strong (if not uniformly tuneful) singing is supported by a backing track as well as their own guitar and washboard playing. The songs, if not exactly memorable once you’ve left the theatre, are lyrically quirky and foot-tappingly pleasing. If it all feels slightly improvised and rough around the edges then that’s part of the duo’s deceptive charm: as ever, both actors work incredibly hard at multi-roling, puppetry and lightning-fast scene-shifting.
Though this leads to some slightly loose pacing in the first half, this is swiftly forgotten by its hilariously timed conclusion, when Frankenstein succeeds in harnessing the essential spark of electrical current that will bring the creature to life, only to find himself pursuing his creation around the lab in an attempt to cover up its nakedness.
Enthusiastically embraced audience participation kick-starts the second half as a baying mob hounds the creature out of town. Later, after some incentives and deliberation, a (socially distanced) volunteer bride is plucked from the aisles to assuage the monster’s encroaching loneliness.
There are even moments of pathos, as the emphasis shifts onto the relationship between Frankenstein and the wretched being he has created, their inextricable links and the boundaries between life and death that can be all too rapidly erased. The duo’s easy intimacy comes to the fore here, even if the mood is quickly switched by their inevitable bickering and Coggins’s delight in how well-suited Mcloughlin is physically to playing a hideously deformed "six-foot four-inch lab rat".
As you might expect of Living Spit, for all their storytelling and musical prowess, they’re ultimately playing it for laughs, putting their own unique and impudent spin on this much-told tale of science gone horribly awry. And laughs there are in barrel loads: it’s good to see them back.
Reviewer: Claire Hayes