The Wasp Factory is based on Iain Banks' debut novel of the same name which was heavily hyped when it was released in 1984. Booksellers may remember the debut for the clientele it attracted - worryingly quiet student types who would take the book home, read it, enjoy it and then send their indistinguishable friends to buy it. The critics were both impressed and horrified with the book - impressed with the warped imagination which had created it; horrified and shocked at the content. This Malcolm Sutherland stage adaptation met with similarly mixed critical acclaim when it first appeared four years ago. Since then, the production has been somewhat tamed but it still retains the best aspects of the novel, including its devious plot.
The story concerns Frank, a teenager on a remote Scottish island who lives with his strange father and has the unfortunate habit of being responsible for the deaths of his young relatives. He also has an insane brother who has recently escaped his asylum and is returning home, phoning regularly along the way. As Frank reveals his past and the relationships between his father, brother and himself, we discover a possible - and very bizarre - reason for his peculiar behaviour.
The play also highlights the novel s wit, its darkness and its gothic psychomania - but it is the way in which these are represented which is most impressive. Energetic narrative monologue is used as a means of sticking closely to the novel's form, but there are also some inventive theatrical devices. For example, Frank is played simultaneously by Daniel Illsley and Janine Wood, not just for effect, but to highlight a central dual aspect of the story.
The performances are all strong, but the most startling is that of David Gant as Frank's father. His characterisation calls for an incredible range of voices which he produces with uncanny ease, including a wonderfully accurate highland Scottish accent (I say this as a Scotsman myself).
Interwoven with the portrayal of the alarming effects of islandic isolation are moments of real humour which have the audience laughing out loud. And a word about the props. These are minimal but expertly used. One character even appears as a marionette!
The Wasp Factory is definitely not for young children, the squeamish or those who think that anything which isn't Shakespeare isn't theatre. But for the rest of us, and in particular Iain Banks fans, this really is an excellent evening's entertainment.
Keith Charters, September 1997