LONDON — In 2008, a little before that other, better-known teen-vampire movie saga began, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s film Let the Right One In debuted to rapt reviews. As dark and glittery as a jet necklace, the film, underneath its surface horror tropes, touches with stealthy, near-silent feet on bullying, AIDS anxiety, urban alienation and pedophilia, among other things. Unlike Twilight, it didn’t spawn a billion-dollar franchise. But it did inspire a U.S. remake (2010’s Let Me In, with Chloe Grace Moretz), won dozens of awards, and created a tiny, passionate cult following, especially amongst emo kids of all ages.
That fan base will be more than pleased with the National Theatre of Scotland’s ingenious stage adaptation, now virtually sold out at London’s Royal Court Theatre and rumored to be moving to the West End soon. (It’s to be assumed that New York producers also will be flying in to check out the show’s transfer potential.) Directed by John Tiffany and associate directed by movement maven Steven Hoggett (whose collaborations have included the globally acclaimed military drama Black Watch, Tony-winning musical Once, and the current Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie), this play is a sinuously fluid, technically audacious work that builds to a gasping, bravura climax.
Adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne (best known for TV work including The Fades, Skins, This is England), the text nimbly braids together some of the best ideas from the three other versions of the story: John Ajvide Lindqvist’s source bestseller; his own adaptation for Alfredson’s film; and the U.S. remake, which was co-written by Lindqvist and director Matt Reeves. The latter film had its fair share of felicities but for the most part neither satisfied fans of the first film nor drew in many newcomers.
Although the core plot skeleton is still visible under the play’s latest blood-stained skin, the stage version’s biggest departure from its predecessors is to make hero Oskar (19-year-old discovery Martin Quinn, excellent) not a pubescent 12-year-old but a strapping full-grown teenager. Presumably it was a decision dictated by the extreme physical challenges of the role, especially in the heart-stopping climax where Oskar has to hold his breath underwater for seemingly minutes at a time.
Some things are lost by this choice, such as a sense of the character’s vulnerability and befuddlement with the adult world. But the rejig also makes gains, notably a more palpable undercurrent of teenage sexuality, and a greater sense of just how much damage the bullies who torment Oskar could do with their man-sized bodies. Moreover, Quinn injects an unexpectedly happy-go-lucky quality into the role, a touch one would think wouldn’t work but that adds a pleasant, needful warmth to the gory, nightmarish proceedings. Certainly he couldn’t be more different from Kare Hedebrant’s white-blond space child from the first film.
Likewise, the role of Eli, the strange girl who lives next door to Oskar, who only comes out at night, and never seems to feel the cold despite the fact that there’s snow everywhere (hint: she’s a vampire), is also played by an older actor, in this case Rebecca Benson, 24. That said, with her dinky frame, wide eyes and mop of unruly doll’s hair, Benson could just about pass for 12, which perfectly resonates with her character’s arrested physical development. (At one point in the 2008 film, she admits that she’s been 12 for a very long time.)
Adopting a predatory gracefulness according to Hoggett’s movement direction, Benson conveys Eli’s animalistic nature with horrifying skill, especially when her whole body undulates and heaves while feasting on her victims. Her voice, however, is a little too monotone at times, even accounting for the fact that she’s meant to sound a bit stilted, like someone born hundreds of years ago.
As in the other versions, Eli lives with a much older man, Hakan (Ewan Stewart), whom other characters wrongly assume to be her father. Out of love for Eli he murders strangers in the local woods, and drains them like stuck pigs to provide the blood she needs to survive, the instigating acts that drive the plot forward. Both films draw an ambiguous veil over how long Eli and Hakan have been together and what exactly is the nature of their relationship, but Lindqvist’s book makes it clear Hakan is a pedophile and Thorne follows that lead here. The gambit more starkly draws out the theme of shameful secrets and desires, of abuses that go on – like the bullying of Oskar – when no one’s looking.
In a story where the characters do a considerable amount of sleeping, Christine Jones’ sparse set suggests the landscape of dreams or perhaps Grimm-style fairy tales. Dominated by soaring white birch trees that serve as ladders or stories-high eyries for wall-scaling Eli and a moveable, multiple-use jungle gym, as lit by Chahine Yavroyan it’s a lonely, Gothic place. A couch or a shop counter are wheeled on by the cast as needed for scenes in different locales, but the transitions are butter-smooth, prompting along the way little bits of stage business that add atmosphere rather than just set up the next scene.
A similar flexibility has been applied to the casting, using just a small corps of actors who play multiple parts. Stephen McCole (a familiar face with numerous U.K. stage, screen and TV credits), for example, incarnates both the lead police investigator and a kindly gym teacher, two types of authority figures out of their league and getting it in the neck, in every sense.
To English or American ears, it may at first seem a little odd that everyone speaks with their own native Scottish accents, especially since the characters are still hailed by their original Swedish names. But audiences will let it slide since the accents are at least redolent of a general sense of Northernness, or somewhere remote and cold. Somehow it also suits the 1980s time frame in which the story is set, in all versions. (One quibble: did teenagers use “bitch” as a term of abuse back then? It strikes the right misogynistic note for the context, but still sounds anachronistic.)
A piped-in score by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds feels appropriately melancholy, but is maybe deployed a touch too often, especially since its gloomy cellos of doom verge on cliché. It meshes ruthlessly well, however, with Gareth Fry’s sound design, which at one point creates a sonic shock that jumps people out of their seats, even those who might know from the film and book versions what’s about to happen.
Extra honors are due to FX designer Jeremy Chernick for working out ways to render on stage several of the story’s most challenging moments involving blood seeping out of skin and that aforementioned underwater climax, which takes place at a swimming pool. On stage, it would obviously be impossible to match literally the horror Alfredson is able to achieve in the first film with this sequence on a real-world set. Instead, the company has devised here a Harry Houdini-like contraption that works just as effectively in its own way. It’s an appropriately magic moment for an enchanting production.
Venue: Royal Court Theatre, London (runs through Dec. 21)
Cast: Martin Quinn, Rebecca Benson, Ewan Stewart, Graeme Dalling, Paul Thomas Hickey, Stephen McCole, Angus Miller, Cristian Ortega, Martin, Susan Vidler
Playwright: Jack Thorne, adapted from the novel and screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Director: John Tiffany
Associate director: Steven Hoggett
Set & costume designer: Christine Jones
Lighting designer: Chahine Yavroyan
Sound designer: Gareth Fry
Special FX designer: Jeremy Chernick
Music: Olafur Arnalds
Presented by the National Theatre of Scotland by arrangement with Marla Rubin Productions, Bill Kenwright, in association with the Royal Court