It was a treat to see this production of the National Theatre of Scotland here at Dundee Rep. I loved the film Let the Right One In (less so the American remake, predictably) but this was an intriguing idea for adaptation and the press preview I attended had whetted my appetite for the experience. Director John Tiffany and associate director Steven Hoggett have worked together before to great acclaim, but this is a particularly wondrous production, truly a vision in action.
A lot of that is due to set and costume designer, Christine Jones. The utter simplicity of the set (white birches, locally sourced) underlies the complexity of action built on its flexibility, such as when the drop leaf table in the flat becomes the horse in the gymnasium. With the barest few props space is nonetheless clearly delineated, even when it overlaps. The trees loom, silent sentinels who impassively observe, sometimes offering comfort, sometimes menace.
Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design is just brilliant, too. The feeling of unease permeates all the action, the feeling that there’s something just beyond what you can see. Your heart races each time some one steps into the light. The lighting helps delineate space as well, as when Oskar sits in the ‘sandbox’ indicated only by the square of white light.
The cast as a whole are superb; they have a lot of challenges and a very stylised interaction. When we were comparing notes at the interval, Mark commented on the power of the physicality. There are moments of ballet where the boys mimic Oskar’s jabs with a knife or dance with the trees (which sounds naff but is really poetic). While there are veterans like Ewan Stewart who plays Hakån, Paul Thomas Hickey and Chris Reilly, who moved seamlessly between a variety of roles, much of the cast was young with various levels of experience. Lorraine M. McIntosh, who may be more familiar locally from musical stages, brought a brittle neediness to the role of Oskar’s mum. The trio of young men who opposed Oskar, Angus Miller, Cristian Ortega and Stuart Ryan, all worked subtlety into what could be unsympathetic roles.
The two young leads were riveting. This is Martin Quinn’s professional stage debut and he had to anchor the entire performance, and managed it superbly. He played much younger than his age believably, making Oskar — as Mark put it — ‘just this side of gormless.’ It was a delicate balance between being a victim and a would-be knight, falling for Eli and trying to believe the best of the bullies. The interactions with McIntosh as his mother were particularly poignant. There’s a ballet they do together that’s just mesmerising.
Rebecca Benson embodies all the strangeness and change that Eli requires in her various states of hunger. There’s a moment where she stares intently into the audience that’s so unsettling I shiver a little even now. Benson shows the sparkle that drew Hakån and then Oskar to her, yet she also easily transforms into the monstrous thing you know she has to be. Her movement is brilliantly choreographed — uncanny is the only word for it.
The creators have emphasised this is a love story rather than horror, though there is a terrific feeling of unease and anxiety throughout, a really good jump and horrible tension during the pool scene. Jack Thorne’s adaptation of John Ajvide Linquivst’s novel and film has stripped away even more than the screenplay did, but the story retains its subtlety (unlike the American film) and its underlying sense of yearning and melancholy. Behind the love that buds between Eli and Oskar is the longing and loss of Oskar’s mother and of Hakån. This production deals deftly with the issue of inappropriate sexuality: Eli may look twelve, but she’s not. We may be culturally primed to disdain Oskar’s mother’s clingy neediness, but it’s hard not to feel keenly Hakån’s breaking heart. The emotional richness of the story resonates.
This is an amazing production and if you have any chance of getting to Dundee in the next two weeks, I suggest you do it. If you think you don’t like theatre, or don’t care about vampires or don’t find horror appealing, go anyway. You won’t be disappointed. I gushed after the preview that this production will be legendary — having seen it, I can assure you it is. I will treasure it.