Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Young Frankenstein - Garrick Theatre

Not being familiar with the 1974 film of the same name or even Mel Brooks’ award-winning musical The Producers (the latter of which I need to change, I know), Young Frankenstein wasn’t a show I rushed to see when it arrived in the West End last year, however it’s been lurking on my list for a while. 

Based on Mel Brooks’ comedy horror, Young Frankenstein follows the story of the infamous Frankenstein’s grandson, Frederick, the Dean of Anatomy at a school of medicine in America. As Frederick learns of his grandfather’s death, he journeys to Transylvania to deal with the castle that has been left to him, spoofing various classic horror films and traits along the way. 

Though I often prefer to go into a show with very few preconceptions, in this case my lack of knowledge of the source material and Mel Brooks’ style was somewhat an obstacle, given that the many of the gags and spoofs rely on this pre-existing foundation of familiarity. It also requires a certain sense of humour, with slapstick comedy and tongue-in-cheek jokes non-discreetly begging for laughter throughout. 

One strand of criticism that I did recall from its arrival in the West End, was that surrounding its crude and distasteful portrayal of women. Despite this prior warning, the extremity of the female representation still took me by surprise. We’re decades past suggesting women only exist for the pleasure of (or to be pleasured by) men, yet here are three female characters paraded through a musical in 2018 with no identity beyond the three stereotypes: chaste, slut and spinster.

While one or two gags of this nature could probably pass within the realms of the genre, when domestic and sexual abuse are brushed off with a grin-and-bear-it attitude, you wonder why nobody questioned crossing the line. Of course, there’s the argument that this portrayal is a spoof in itself and true to the source material, but as Natasha Tripney perfectly summarised in her review for The Stage, “it contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement.”

What made up for my lack of connection with the book and lyrics was the energy and talent of the cast. Hadley Fraser carries Frederick Frankenstein with effortless flair; though the most naturalistic character of the show, he also dips into the bizarre with ease, delivering sound vocals and movement throughout. While their characterisation is problematic, Dianne Pilkington, Summer Strallen and Lesley Joseph turn what could be vaguely catchy sing-alongs into powerful and impressive musical numbers, with their vocal talent rising way above the rest. 

Susan Stroman’s fun and ridiculous choreography comes to its climax in the second half, with an all-singing, all-dancing extensive tap routine to Puttin' on the Ritz, a joyful moment that grabs the audience’s undivided attention for perhaps the first and final time. 

If you’re likely to miss the horror gags, being a musical theatre fan gives you another chance to be in on the joke, with such routines and songs spoofing well-known musicals and techniques. 

While my experience of Young Frankenstein wasn’t quite laugh-a-minute, it’s an undeniably fun and energetic performance, with an impressive and showy set that often goes off with a bang. I certainly wasn’t alone in tapping along to Puttin' on the Ritz on the way out of the theatre.

*I was gifted this ticket but all words and opinions are my own.

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