Lulu is the first of the Almeida's season of productions at the new venue, and it is certainly an appropriate choice, luring Islington trendies to venture into one of London's seamier neighbourhoods. The story of a woman who moves from lover to lover, before meeting her death at the hands of Jack the Ripper, shocked audiences when it was first performed. Today's audiences are less shockable, but even so, the piece still manages to serve up some decidedly uncomfortable moments.
Playwright Nicholas Wright has condensed two plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, into one and, in the process, has taken considerable liberties with Frank Wedekind's primary text. Perhaps as a sign of the times, he's chosen to stress the theme of child abuse. This is not an obvious feature in the original works, but the decision to underscore it works. By doing so, Wright provides more understanding of Lulu's motivation. No longer is she the femme fatale of Wedekind's imagination but rather someone to be pitied, someone exploited by men right until the very end.
Jonathan Kent's production also rightly rejected the long shadows expressionist approach, but there seems to be something awry with the pacing, nonetheless. Some scenes drag out to an inordinate length (although to be fair, there were some misbehaving props to contend with on the night I attended).
In the build up to Lulu's opening, much of the media interest focused on former Brookside star Anna Friel in the title role. In the flesh (versus the newspapers' features pages), Friel starts off nervously, delivering her lines rather flatly. But, almost imperceptibly, she grows into the part. What is particularly compelling is the way that she succeeds in portraying herself as a victim. Her Lulu is no man-eater, but a frail woman, one who is only able to relate to men sexually and yet who also maintains an air of childishness throughout.
As the louche Dr Schoning, Alan Howard has adopted an extraordinary speaking style. Elongating his vowels and slowing his speech right down, Howard's vocal approach seems out of step with the naturalistic style of everyone around him. But there are strong performances from Tom Georgeson, as Lulu's exploitative father, and Johanna ter Steege, as the lovelorn, lesbian countess.
A word of praise too, for Jonathan Dove's haunting music. It provides an extra layer of melancholia for the evening and enhances the production considerably. Though it has a few glitches to iron out, this is a compelling theatrical experience: a Lulu for the 21st century.