Review: Let the Right one in at the Royal Exchange is “as heart-rending as it is throat-tearing”

This Halloween sees a stage adaptation of the hauntingly evocative horror/love story, Let the Right One In come to the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester
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Based on the International best-selling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and its subsequent cult-hit 2008 big-screen adaptation, directed by Tomas Alfredson: this version is adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), and is directed by Bryony Shanahan (Wuthering Heights, Nothing).

A ritualistic serial killer is loose in the suburbs of Stockholm and the community is on edge, wondering who amongst them could be the villain.

Oskar – played by Pete MacHale (Choose or Die) – lives with his alcoholic mother and spends his days hiding from the school bullies, who make his life a daily hell.

He has elaborate revenge fantasies about getting back at them but finds that his courage ultimately fails him…

That is until a mysterious girl and her father arrive in the middle of the night and move in right next door.

World-wearied, and wise beyond her apparent years would suggest: Eli – played by Rhian Blundell (Vampire Academy) – is a 200-year-old vampire forever trapped in the body of a teenager, who, much like Oskar, yearns for a connection with another soul.

The pair strike up an unlikely and deeply moving friendship as they depend on one another for their survival in the eerily beautiful winter setting of 1980s Sweden.

Rhian Blundell (Eli) & Daon Broni (Jocke)

It is this twisted fairytale environment, suffused with an 80s energy, that adds a real unique sense of style to the show, and through expert use of the space afforded by the Royal Exchange Theatre’s ‘in the round’ stage, it is dynamic and shifting, giving a real sense of place.

The setup allows the creative team great freedom to accost the audience from all sides with a barrage of at times frantic activity… Cast members climb ladders, and sprint along gangways, emerging on opposite sides of the stage at a moment’s notice, aided by the timely and
intelligent lighting which expertly covers their movements.

This inspired stage and lighting design by Amelia Jane Hankin and Joshua Pharo incorporates a rather ingenious grid design of lights on the stage, akin to the side of Oskar and Eli’s Rubik’s cube – that pulsates and shifts in colour, and follows the actors as they glide around the stage.

Think Tom Hanks, dancing on the floor piano in Big, and you might get some idea as to what I am referring to. It also proves to be a highly effective device for setting the very distinct locations of the play apart from one another.

Explosions of colour will transport the audience from locations such as the school gymnasium, with its oppressive artificial lighting; to the bubblegum pink of the sweetshop, that bursts forth, dazzling the eyes; to the desolation of the tiny climbing frame outside of Oskar and Eli’s building where the pair first meet under the moonlight.

It is a kaleidoscopic array of colour and tone that does a terrific job of dictating the mood of each scene and leans quite heavily into an appropriate Americana-inspired aesthetic that suits the show well.

This sense of the familiar Hollywood feel is further amplified by an energetic synth-wave soundtrack from sound designer, Pete Malkin that pulses and pounds along between scenes, giving it a distinctly Stranger Things vibe.

There are also quite beautiful parts of the score that accompany the more heart-rending and emotional scenes, as well as cacophonous outbursts to
accompany the more horrific ones.

And the show certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the violence and bloodletting.

Much like the movie, the show adheres to the time-honoured horror principle that ‘less is more, and therefore ensures that when it is time for Eli to snack on the local residents, it is suitably shocking, and never feels gratuitous.

The show features a diverse cast of supporting actors who each fill their role/roles admirably.

Of particular note, is Oskar’s aforementioned mother, played with great range and versatility by Merce Ribot, and Darren Kuppan, who plays both Oskar’s estranged father, and his stand-in father figure – Mr Avila: the school gym teacher.

But it is the central chemistry of Rhian and Pete that really steals the show. The pair almost seem to occupy the same space, such is the power
of their symbiotic relationship. At once vulnerable, and indomitable – the show rests on the success of this vital connection…and it works wonderfully.

If I had any minor gripes, and they are just that…minor…it is that I got the impression that some lines of dialogue that were not intended to illicit laughter from the audience, did so.

The show has some overtly humorous parts to be sure, but on occasion, it felt as though there was a crossing of wires between the intention of the showrunners and the audience’s response.

One other minor quibble came from the fact that fans of the source material, myself included, were in no doubt as to the intention of all of the scenes, but audience members who are not may have felt lost.

In particular, a scene where Eli – being a vampire – must receive an invitation before entering Oskar’s home.

This scene in the movie was aided by the budget and special effects of a motion picture and showed in no uncertain terms what the repercussions of not receiving said invitation before entering might be: buckets of blood pouring out of Eli until the invitation is
extended.

Obviously, this is a difficult scene to adapt, given the relative restrictions of the theatre, so it felt a little unclear as to what was transpiring. An isolated and largely insignificant problem though, that did little if anything to disrupt the otherwise flawless telling of what has become something of a modern classic coming-of-age love story, masquerading as vampire fiction.

This adaptation, unlike some others, is anything but anaemic and is just as heart-rending as it is throat-tearing. It will certainly scratch that itch for people longing to see that rarest of beasts…good horror in the theatre.

Let the Right One In runs at The Royal Exchange Theatre, from 22 October to 19 November 2022.

Pay What You Decide tickets are also available and on Mondays tickets are only £12.

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