Granted that the original book by Robert Louis Stevenson is a short one (under 80 pages), this new stage adaptation by Chris Bond still feels like a skeleton where a re-fleshing attempt has been slightly too-obvious. We’re in the East End of London, roughly at the time of Jack the Ripper, where attempts to alleviate the overall misery and poverty are miniscule in the face of reality.
Jekyll, of course, means well. But he’s a weak man, too concerned with the duality of his own nature to be able to do anything but destroy. It’s not a sympathetic version of the character but Tom Jude plays it with great power;. You can see where and why Jekyll is wrong and thus why Hyde is so much more the dominant side of his personality from the first lines of the doctor’s confession, where he stutters mid-sentence and has to fight to enunciate the sibilant.
Director Matt Devitt and designer Norman Coates give it a music-hall setting, complete with chairman (Simon Jessup) – who also does a rather smart turn as Jekyll’s harridan of a mother – and painted back-drops, reminding us of Doré visual equivalent of Mayhew’s reportage. Christopher Howcroft’s lighting creates some interesting effects and suggests how the theatre of the period created a three-dimensional appearance from two-dimensional resources.
Musical director Carole Sloman also plays a Vesta Tilley-like man-about-town. The mix of well-known music-hall songs, Gilbert & Sullivan, revivalist hymns and a slice of Balfe is very well played and sung by the entire cast. Mark Stanford doubles Jekyll’s pragmatic colleague Lanyon and the crippled soldier whose bitter commentary underscores the realities of 19th century life for so many.
Rachel Dawson has a fine voice and made something touching of Ellen, the housemaid whose fate once dismissed from her employment may now seem a cliché but was then a frequent and grim fact. Her alter-ego is the whore (Karen Fisher-Pollard), a would-be survivor who can manipulate Jekyll and the toff but is powerless against Hyde.
A parallel smaller-scale production, also written by Bond, has been touring local secondary schools and colleges. It was directed by education manager Patrick O'Sullivan, placing the story within its historical context and drawing attention to the parallels with modern times and inner-city areas. It may not be a direct result but, as the official first night of this première fell on Hallowe’en, some audience members almost outshone the cast with their eye-catching seasonal outfits.