Review of Let The Right One In at Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Tickets for front row seats for Let The Right One In come with the printed warning “risk of blood splatter” – and wherever you sit, the Royal Exchange’s latest show delivers plenty of spills, thrills and shivers.
In perhaps its most shocking twist though, the production doesn’t just quicken the pulse, but also warms the heart – as director Bryony Shanahan bites deep into the complex emotional connection at its core.
The tale of Oskar, a bullied young boy, and Eli, the lonely vampire that moves in next door, comes with an existing fan base from the original cult novel and subsequent film – and the high demand for tickets, even before the production opened, suggests audiences feel a strong connection to the story and its characters.
Jack Thorne’s lean stage adaption aims to satisfy those unfamiliar with the source material, as well as the many returning for a fresh take on a much-loved story. Boiling things down to the bones of the plot, he keeps the focus firmly on the relationship between Oskar and Eli.
Despite it being autumn outside, there’s a distinct wintery chill on stage. Snow flurries fall, and blankets are pulled tight to keep the cold at bay. Daylight is in short supply, and the world feels washed out – even the jars of sweets that fill the shelves at the local shop are drained of colour.
That delicately constructed atmosphere is the product of a design team firing on all cylinders. Neon lights pulse and glow in the darkness, while 80s-style synths throb insistently or swoon majestically.
A busy school gym, an ice rink, and a swimming pool are all quickly conjured up through an ingenious use of lighting, movement, and minimal set. Involvement from members of the Exchange’s Young Company creates a buzz, bringing an authentic liveliness to the school-based scenes. Pieces of set are wheeled on and off stage at speed, and scenes switched at the click of a TV remote control.
That busy pace cleverly conceals the sketchy nature of Thorne’s adaptation. While the deepening bond between Eli and Oskar is subtly drawn, there’s a scrappiness to the stories taking place around them. As a result, a few of the performers struggle to flesh out their characters.
As Hakan, Eli’s middle-aged ‘guardian’, Andy Sheridan blends a Bowie-esque silver-grey haircut with Roy Cropper’s dress-sense to create someone seedy, needy and genuinely unsettling. Stefan Race is similarly impressive, going all in as a twisted sadistic teenage bully. While the ever-reliable Darren Kuppan brings credibility to several supporting roles.
The growing affection between Eli and Oskar is depicted with intelligence and care by Rhian Blundell and Pete MacHale. Oskar is loveably gauche, almost innocent – while Eli is more mannered, adjusting her words and behaviour to the situation. Both are looking to escape from their current situations.
Amelia Jane Hankin’s set is all solid straight lines, boxes, and grids – a striking contrast with the fluid and ambiguous nature of Oskar and Eli’s identities and relationship. Eli, in particular, is resistant to being labelled – “not a thing… not a girl, not a boy. I’m just Eli”.
When they playfully dance around the stage together, high on the emotions they are experiencing, they move freely, refusing to be contained within the illuminated squares marked out on the floor.
Despite appearances, Eli’s indeterminate age makes it difficult to describe their relationship as young love. There is though something similar going on, as the two of them try on unfamiliar feelings for size, and struggle with the strength of their unexpected emotions. Blundell and MacHale are a joy to watch, delivering powerful and layered performances.
With its impressive use of the in-the-round space, strong cast and super-cool design Let The Right One In is Bryony Shanahan’s most cohesive and impactful production to date at the Royal Exchange. Nurturing the sensitivity amidst the savagery, it’s a heart-stopping blend of bloodlust and tender affection.
Performance seen on 27 October 2022.
Let The Right One In runs at the Royal Exchange from 22 October to 19 November 2022.
Ticket prices – there are a limited number of tickets at £7 for Under 30s across performances, on Monday nights all tickets are £12, and banquette seats (which go on sale on the day of each performance ) are £10.
Images by Johan Persson