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The Strange History of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Iain Macfarlane after Robert Louis Stevenson
New End Theatre
(2011)

The Strange History of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde publicity image

The Strange History of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's famous 1886 novella that looks at the two sides of the human psyche, the split between the purely sensual being satisfying its own appetites and the socially conscious gentleman, was dramatised almost as soon as it was published and it has had several cinema versions that have emphasised the physical transformation from the cultured Doctor Jekyll to the hairy, claw-handed monster Mr Hyde.

In this treatment, directed by Iain Ormsby-Knox from a script by his own alter-ego Macfarlane, there are no clever special effects or horror comic indulgence in the presentation of Hyde's rapes and murders. Apart from the support of lighting and a powerful minimalist sound score, this is a presentation that relies upon the actor - and Jorn-Bjorn Fuller-Gee delivers a bravura performance from the moment that he careers through the audience, rushing past any latecomers who are still taking their seats, as he fights against his possession by Hyde, until he finally ends his struggle forty minutes later and gains their enthusiastic acclaim.

It is a short novel and it has been trimmed to its bare essentials, so it is not a long journey, but it is a stormy one. Jekyll here recounts his own story. Having subsided into an ornate chair, the only prop or furniture in the show, he says, "You will wonder what is going on and who I am," and then proceeds to tell us, miming the mixing of potions, the bolting and locking of doors, the injecting of fluids and the drinking of drugs. The actor uses his own vocal and physical skills to suggest his physical transformations - and intriguingly, unlike the growth into a monster the cinema has usually shown, this Jekyll describes the sensation of shrinking as he feels himself transforming into Hyde.

What we have here is not a Hammer Horror but the psychological struggle of a man who, having once liberated his sensuality, then struggles to control it. There is one extraordinarily presentation of the brutal rape of a young girl but, graphic and shocking though it is, like the complicated mime of mixing chemicals it is still a self-conscious piece of theatre, beautifully executed but appreciated as performance - and although the performance is of considerable skill and theatrical accomplishment, it does not make the audience share in his dilemma and recognize it as our own. Perhaps it is the form of telling that makes it a kind of demonstration or re-enactment rather than something of unknown outcome happening before our eyes that blocks emotional identification.

This kind of dramatic fare makes me think of the bravura performances of old timers such as Matheson Lang took into the variety theatres. Or of a revival of the kind of variety bill that could feature just this sort of thing which deserves a place alongside the singers and hip-hop dancers of Britain's Got Talent - except, of course, that Mr Fuller-Gee, though LIPA trained, was born in Norway where he has won several awards for his acting.

Continues at New End until 8th May 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton