In Bill Condon's 1998 film of the same name, the aging Hollywood director James Whale draws on the words of Frankenstein's monster, his most notorious cinematic creation, to plead “Friend?” to a young man he torments and tries to seduce in turn. Russell Labey's obvious love of his source makes for a faithful adaptation that still has a life and energy of its own. But his production generates more romance and nostalgia than horror: the monster is North Pole-distant in a fascinating look at the nearer horrors in Whale's memory.
A huge, badly painted head leers down at us – but this is no fairground horrorshow. Designer Jason Denvir's bizarre scenic art stylings are something of a red herring in a slow-moving psychological drama that's short on both gods and monsters. Whale is a gentle, aging recluse in 1950s suburbia. His days enlivened only bickering with his housekeeper Hanna – a brilliantly funny and warm Lachele Carl – and trying to persuade passing young men to take a dip in his swimming pool.
He's most famous for directing Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but prefers to forget them. After a stroke bisects his mind into a foggy present and a horrific past, he's tormented by the realer horrors of his time fighting in the First World War. Men are a welcome distraction. He toys with Kay (Joey Phillips), a nerdy superfan who'll agree to strip an item of clothing in exchange for each new autobiographical tidbit. But it's really his redneck young gardener Clayton Boone he wants: Will Austin is a rather more fragile bit of eye-candy than he first appears, and snaps under the pressure of Whales' advances.
Boone watches Frankenstein on TV. Poignantly, Whale asks, “Did you laugh?” Ian Gelder's role as Whale is a tough one, switching erratically through cycling moods: from genial old codger to a nightmare vision of a predatory homosexual, straight from a 1950s scaremongering educational film. He's got a kind of corrodingly steeliness that's completely equal to the part, and finds all the humour in a horrifying metamorphosis away from normality.
It's smoothly managed, compelling stuff. But Russell Labey's direction is slightly hamstrung by a thrust staging that means that the huge back wall projections are an adjunct to, not an integral part of the narrative. In the original film, the story is intercut with scenes from the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, and with agonising reunions with his monster, Boris Karloff. Labey omits them in a move that both escapes considerable logistical challenges and heightens the story's homo-romantic themes still further. Naked tussling between James Whale and his art school classmate – slightly marred by stilted period dialogue – gives way to a present where Whale and Boone are locked in perpetual power play.
This is about as sexy as Fringe theatre gets, with naked men swanning about both in and out of Whale's fevered imagination. They're the gods Whale idolises. But the parallels between him and Victor Frankenstein, tormented by his creation, are softened in a drama that hones in on the human, not the suprahuman.