Review: Young Frankenstein (Garrick Theatre)
Mel Brooks' musical comedy arrives in the West End starring Ross Noble, Hadley Fraser, Summer Strallen and Lesley Joseph
If you don't find Young Frankenstein a satisfyingly hilarious night in the theatre, you might want to get your vital signs checked: this is the funniest West End musical since The Producers. Of course that too was the work of comic genius Mel Brooks in collaboration with one of Broadway's finest director-choreographers, Susan Stroman. The Producers went down a storm here when it crossed the pond, but can lightning strike twice? Damn right it can.
Despite boasting the majority of the same creative team, this isn't the same Young Frankenstein ("it's pronounced 'Fronkensteen'!") that performed disappointingly in New York a decade ago. Anticipated to be The Producers 2, and with a budget as large as the expectations, that was an overblown spectacle which failed to fully ignite.
This smaller scale iteration is leaner, swifter and - like the Monster at its centre - a miracle of resuscitation. The production values are still very high, from William Ivey Long's gorgeous costumes to spookily atmospheric lighting by Ben Cracknell and particularly effective sound design by Gareth Owen: this is a lavish eyeful. Brooks' traditional-sounding score is workmanlike rather than inspired, but the songs efficiently support a rambunctiously successful book (co-authored with Thomas Meehan) that places the emphasis firmly on the comedy aspect of the term Musical Comedy.
The plot follows that of the 1975 Mel Brooks film which in turn was a joyous bastardisation of the horror movie adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel. In a nutshell: brain-obsessed American doctor inherits sinister Transylvanian castle and eccentric staff, moves there and continues quest to make a living creature from dead body parts, in the process discarding his heiress fiancée and taking up with nubile assistant.
Brooks doesn't really 'do' subtle but the more modest scale of this staging allows every gag to register. The combination of borscht-belt humour, rollickingly weird characters, splashy but slightly off-kilter production numbers and vaudevillian set pieces with a twist, proves irresistible.
Stroman and Brooks have assembled a killer cast led by Hadley Fraser as a glorious, dead pan Frankenstein, dashing but faintly absurd, with a ringing tenor voice; Summer Strallen sparkles as his love interest, sex-mad blonde Inga. Fraser and Strallen collectively achieve that sort of sunny, lunatic bliss that only exists in musical comedy. So does Dianne Pilkington, a magnetic, golden-voiced delight as Frankenstein's soignée society fiancée. Her rendition of arguably the show's best number - the faintly filthy power ballad "Deep Love" - is as vocally thrilling as it is creasingly funny.
Lesley Joseph has the role of her career as Frau Blücher, a housekeeper so grim that even the mention of her name terrifies the local horses, and she plays her with a manic-eyed relish that is a joy to behold. Shuler Hensley - who was in the Broadway company - is surprisingly sympathetic as the Monster, all the funnier for keeping up an expression of incredulous bewilderment even when hoofing flat out with the meticulously drilled ensemble or or being treated to the dubious hospitality of Patrick Clancy's hilarious blind hermit
Following in Marty Feldman's highly distinctive footsteps as hunchbacked henchman Igor, Ross Noble has perhaps the most difficult task, but succeeds magnificently. Bent double for most of the show, the comedian brings all his eccentric, dark-hued comic flair, slightly alarming brand of bonhomie and a surprisingly fine singing voice to the impish sidekick with the inconsistent hump, and the result is an entrancing musical debut. When he and Fraser cut loose in their music hall-style "Together Again" number, the crowd goes crazy, but crucially neither performer lets their characterisation slip even for a second. It is absolute bliss.
The legendary "Puttin' On The Ritz" sequence from the movie is also greeted with theatre-shaking roars of approval, and escalates exhilaratingly into a full production number that rivals even Stroman's sensational work on "Springtime For Hitler" in The Producers.
This is a wonderful night out, frequently reaching that all too rare comic plateau where it becomes literally impossible to stop laughing. A triumph.
Young Frankenstein runs at the Garrick Theatre until 10 February.