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Monster Hit for the National

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Whatever the overall verdict from the critics -- so far so enthusiastic -- the National has obviously got a monster hit on its hands with Danny Boyle's brave and exciting production of Frankenstein in the Olivier, and one that could easily follow War Horse into the New London and on to New York.

For whatever the ultimate outcome of the "who's best in which role" debate, Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller (I give it to Cumberbatch on points as the Creature and by a knockout as Frankenstein), it's clear that neither actor is irreplaceable; these are roles that leave the most tremendous leeway for interpretation, physical and intellectual, and you could have four or five of them bolstering a long-running transfer.

Like David Benedict of Variety I have serious misgivings about the script. But you could have those about War Horse, too, that's for sure. And while I don't mind the altered ending of Mary Shelley's fable -- both protagonists survive in a sort of existential nightmare -- this part of the production really does need a lot more writing to be as powerful as the rest.

Most people have read the novel, and certainly Claire Tomalin, the distinguished biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley's mother, has; her face was a picture as a National Theatre bigwig or sponsor asked her had she ever done so at the end last night. 

But theatre is not just about words, and the story of Frankenstein and his laboratory offspring is pure science fiction, elemental, visceral, physical and Gothic, and Boyle's production delivers on all those fronts, with fire and water and the tolling of a great bell and a grabbing of the Olivier by the scruff of the neck that sets a new standard in audacity.

It's ironic that Cumberbatch couldn't help the NT to capitalise further on last year's surprise hit, Terence Rattigan's After the Dance, because he went off to film War Horse with Steven Spielberg. But he's certainly made up for that with this performance.

I wonder if director Mike Newell (whose great Donnie Brasco movie starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp is featured in the current A O Scott film choice on the New York Times website) and producer Jeremy Thomas, who were sitting in the Olivier on Tuesday night, have plans to film Frankenstein? Perhaps Danny Boyle himself has.

When he received an Oscar for Slumdog Millionare, Boyle pointedly thanked Max Stafford-Clark in his acceptance speech. Many of our leading film directors worked as fledgling directors at the Royal Court: Boyle, Stephen Frears, Simon Curtis, Roger Michell...and of course many other leading directors are indelibly associated with the place, too: Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, Richard Eyre and Mel Smith (well, Mel-wise, The Tall Guy is a terrific movie).

It was only when I got home that I learned that my son and daughter-in-law were also at the National last night, watching the utterly sold out Twelfth Night in the Cottesloe (they were disappointed).

Greenland has struggled in the Lyttelton, and its early demise explains why Rory Kinnear's Hamlet is playing twelve performances on that stage (instead of the Olivier) after its tour.

Talking of poor houses, I hear that Enda Walsh's Penelope is struggling desperately at the Hampstead Theatre. I feel sorry for the actors, who will always feel miserable playing to very few people.

It's not a great play, but it's very good writing, far denser than Nick Dear's for Frankenstein, and we should be more hospitable towards Irish actors, especially the wonderful Niall Buggy, when we have the chance.




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