Meet the stars of the Royal Exchange production of ‘Let The Right One In’

The Royal Exchange Theatre is set to host 'Let the Right one In, a hauntingly evocative love and horror story this halloween
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Based on the International bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and its subsequent cult-hit 2008 big-screen adaptation, directed by Tomas Alfredson; this version – adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) – stars Rhian Blundell (Vampire Academy) as Eli: a 200 year old vampire forever frozen in the body of a teenager; and Pete MacHale (Choose or Die) as Oskar: a lonely and misunderstood boy who spends his days at the mercy of the local bullies.

The pair strike up an unlikely friendship as they depend on one another for their very survival in the foreboding, yet eerily beautiful winter setting of 1980’s Sweden.

I interviewed the Vampire and her on stage pal, Oskar.

What do you like about the city of Manchester as a place to perform?:

Rhian: I’m originally from Blackpool, so there was something about Manchester being the closest cultural hub to me… The Royal Exchange especially, was the first theatre that I went to that where I saw my first proper, drama plays. We had multiple conversations about this as soon as it was announced that this play was being put on… (I was) straight on the phone to my agent (saying) “I will hold open the door between scenes as long as i can be in it”…because the Royal Exchange is doing a horror play… like of course.

Pete: I’m from Bristol originally. Bournemouth training, London-based. So I’ve not really had that much contact with Manchester other than my first ever job was in Manchester. So it feels like a bit of a full-circle moment. That was my first screen job, professionally, and this is my first proper big stage job. So it felt a bit serendipitous to be invited back. I mean, Manchester is lovely, obviously, so I’m having such a wonderful time here. But I would be lying if I (didn’t say that) the primary draw for this, was the second the show was announced. I was on the phone to my agent saying “I need to be in that room” (both laugh). “I will do anything…please”. so , obviously Manchester is a lovely place to have it be, and this theatre from everything I’ve seen is wonderful and lovely.

 

Photo credit – Chris Payne

The play is many things: a love story, coming of age drama, as well as a horror. What attracted you to the play, and were you familiar with the original film?

 Rhian: (Laughs) I think Pete needs to go first with this one.

Pete: So, in my third year of training: the director who directed my grad show – he actually directed the production of Let the Right One In that was at the Abbey in Dublin (John Tiffany). And I remember – because you look people up who you’ve worked with – seeing that he’d directed it and I hadn’t quite graduated at the time, and just thinking oh my god, that was the part. That was THE part!

And now I’ll never get to do it because they did it yay number of years ago at the Royal Court… and it’s been up in Glasgow… and now they’ve done it in Dublin, so I won’t see a revival of it. Because for me, I love the film so much, the book’s fantastic, and it was something that was already on my radar, and I saw that it was a show (despairing)…and there might have been a vague chance that it was something I could have done, I was absolutely heart-broken.

So when it was announced, I was immediately like “I need it”. “I need to be there”. But, like you said, the story is many things but for us especially in the room – it really is a love story. People will see it in loads of different ways of course. And people will enjoy certain elements more than others, and relate to certain elements more than others. But at least with what it feels like we’re going through, it feels like Oskar and Eli’s experience of finding each other.

And that is something that I have always seen in it, and that has always been beautiful. I remember when I had my audition, and Bryony (Bryony Shanahan – Director) said, whilst talking about the play, about how it is such a gorgeous story. It’s always felt beautiful, and bleak, and gorgeous.

Rhian: So for me…I was obsessed with the Swedish film. I remember when it came out. And then when it was announced (for the stage) it was one of those things… Nothing on earth gives me more joy than a good ghost story. That is my favourite thing in the whole world. And not that this is a ghost story, but it has very much that haunting element to it. So just to throw myself into a genre that makes me so happy was incredible. And then a part like Eli…I think the real joy of Eli, and a lot of the characters, but for me, definitely Eli, is that Eli is whoever is watching it needs Eli to be. Whatever part of you –  you need to project onto Eli, you can because…

 Pete: She’s got 200 years…(laughs)

 Rhian: Yeh…she’s everything and nothing. And also…she is absolutely terrifying. So it’s great to be on stage and scare the crap out of some grown-ass men. Great fun…not gonna lie (laughs).

 Pete: I think she’s quite nice! (both laugh)

Photo credit – Chris Payne

Tell us a little bit more about your fascinating characters, Oskar, and Eli? What drew you to them?

 

Rhian: So yeh, to be honest… from a really selfish actor viewpoint I don’t think there is a better kind of character than Eli. Because not only do I get to explore this incredible love story, (I get to) delve into this – I’m almost dubious to call, person… but this, creature, that’s had experiences so beyond what I – hopefully (laughs) – will ever experience. But also just the physicality. Getting to create, again I don’t want to say monster, because I don’t think she’s a monster…But to create…

 Pete: Moments of monstrousness.

 Rhian: Yeh. Something inhuman. To create the physicality and the presence of something that is inhuman on stage. And finding that, in relation to the character of Oskar in particular, is just so much fun. And I hope it’s entertaining, if nothing else. I hope people feel things, but are also on the edge of their seats.

 And Pete, what about Oskar? What drew you to him?

 Pete: Yeh, so…obviously I’ve said that I love the film. And something I’ve talked about a lot with people is – and something that’s been really special for me to bring into the room, is that Oskar was specifically cast in this iteration of the show as a trans-man, or a trans-masculine person. And for me as a young trans-person coming to terms with my identity when I was 13, something of Oscar’s story in the film – even though he isn’t portrayed as transgender in the film – spoke so much to this frustration. This general rage of not being understood. And trying so hard and not understanding why you are just not…on the same path as everyone else. You’ve just been singled out, or you’re different.

It’s difficult to explain because it’s something that at the time I couldn’t put into words. Because when you are going through these experiences of gender, for some people, and for myself, there was this feeling that I feel normal (so) why is this not normal to you? I don’t understand. I think that is something that you really see in Oskar. He’s this character who doesn’t know any other way to be. Maybe he’s awkward, and maybe he says the wrong thing. Or maybe he says the most obvious thing. I don’t know… He’s just who he is, and for some people that is a little bit wrong. For me, at a time when I was really struggling with how I was perceived in the world as a trans-person: that really resonated.

And so, when I saw in the casting that they were choosing to bring that to the character – which is something that I’ve held internally for so many years, and I saw this portrayal of trans-ness in this character who isn’t. And I was being offered an opportunity to do that, and to bring that into the room and to share that part of myself with this character. And that somebody else, and the creative team behind it, had seen that potential in the character too. That was so special. I mean, other than that personal angle to it… He’s just a good boy (laughs) trying his best.

We keep talking in the room about how he doesn’t know any other way to be, and (that) a lot of the story is about Oskar finding moments where he is trying to be brave. I think a lot of people have said that he’s being his own kind of brave all the way through, and a lot of the characters in this play are people who don’t really have the courage to be themselves. Oskar just does it intrinsically, and that is wonderful to bring onto the stage.

The original film is very striking to look at. Almost fairy tale like, with its wintery Swedish setting. Were there any challenges in representing that on stage?

Rhian: Definitely!

Pete: I’m going to be sweating! (laughs) (in reference to wearing Oskar’s winter clothing on stage). The other 2 productions that I know of that have toured with this show had a very similar aesthetic…

Rhian: We’ve gone very much our own way.

Pete: They went quite literal with the snow and the trees – not that that is a bad thing (though) because both productions looked very beautiful from all the shots I’ve seen.

 Rhian: I think there is an element to ours that we leaned a little bit more into…The childish joy is coming from us, and actually, I would say the environment is quite foreboding, because I think that’s an element of the story that’s not really been explored visually before. So, I would say that our set is a little bit more intimidating. And it’s been left to us to find the light in that. It’s been really, really fun, and I have a lot of faith it’s going to come across on stage.

Pete: I think it looks cool!

Rhian: It really does! And it leans so much into the 80’s. We have leaned into it in the best ways.

Pete: Yep, the 80’s vibe. The staging and the 80’s vibes. We had that call on the first day when we had the whole plan for the set explained to us. I was really excited because I just assumed it was going to be similar, with the snow and the trees, but I think those physically tangible elements of the story – which play so heavily into the setting of the film…Those are more implied by performance and how we manoeuvre through the space. The way that we have gone visually is much more explorative.

Rhian: Yeh. And I absolutely cannot wait for audiences to see how we have explored light and sound.

Pete: Oh my god, yeh! The lighting and sound has started to come into the room these last few days and it has been incredible.

Rhian: You’ll feel that you are in those spaces, purely by what our insane team have done. It’s so cool what they are doing.

Pete: And also from our amazing acting! (both laugh).

How challenging is it to represent horror on stage? And do you think it is a genre that is well-suited to theatre?

 Pete: Honestly…in the rehearsal room…it’s hilarious.

 Rhian: Because it is frightening…already.

Pete: You have to hit these highs so hard. It’s like in comedy and you are watching something go wrong for somebody…That person – that character – has to be living so in the moment (feeling that) “this has gone horribly wrong” And the audience watching is like “that’s hilarious”. And I think for us sometimes in the rehearsal room we’re hitting these such intense beats of terror and horror, but you’re still watching your friend do it.

All of the elements don’t exist around it yet and you know that when it exists in the space, it’s going to be terrifying. But while you are building it… if you even look at each other and there’s even half a moment of a twitchy eye, then you’re gone because it’s very easy to crack (up). It’s very much a rehearsal process.

Rhian: I personally think a lot of it is so terrifying because it’s ‘there’. All of these horror themes, all these horror things we’ve seen – on screen that’s terrifying. Put it in front of you… That’s so much worse! There’s gonna be a lot of light and sound tricks. There’s gonna be a lot of precision. I’m not playing down how hard I’m sure it’s going to be, but people are gonna be so scared!

Pete: What’s really helpful too about this specific show is that it doesn’t lean into jump scares. It’s a show that builds atmosphere.

Rhian: It’s more about what you don’t see. It’s what’s just slightly hidden from view.

 Pete: And the real moments of horror are things like dawning realisations. Or just absolute brutality. I mean. We are in the round (the central stage) and you can’t hide anything. A lot of what you see is happening. We’ve discussed that some of the most difficult to watch scenes are going to be scenes that are…

Rhian: …not necessarily horror.

 Pete: Not what you’d expect.

 Rhian: They are the human ones (scenes).

The play, as well as the book and film, all tackle the theme of bullying. What do you think the overall message is to be taken away from the performance about such an important topic?

Pete: It’s difficult, because that theme exists within the wider context of the entire story. I think something that’s been really important, and something we’ve worked really hard on in the rehearsal room, is to find a way for all of the character’s stories to make sense… That no-one is the villain of their own story. Even the people causing harm.

We had a really important moment in one of the rehearsal spaces where somebody pointed out that we were talking quite negatively about the bullying character. And this person was like, “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk negatively about those actions, but we talk so kindly about Eli, and she kills people”. I think we’ve worked really hard in that space to tell a nuanced and caring story for every single character. Even the ones who are enacting things that you might morally disagree with.

Also, I think one of the difficult things about this show – this story – is that the ending is so ambiguous. The story is so ambiguous. What you take from it is so ambiguous. I don’t think there’s a right answer. I don’t think it comes with a thesis point about what comes from bullying, or what causes bullying, or what happens when people are bullied, or when people fight back. Or any of that.

I don’t think there is a right answer. I think if there was a fix-all, then since the 80’s we would’ve sorted it out, but we clearly haven’t. What the show does more than anything is just hold the experience of people who have been through that, and says ‘I see you.’ That (it) exists and we know that people experience this.

Rhian: I think as well there is something to be said for the fact that some of the most frightening stuff in the show is (centred around) human’s actions, not the vampire’s actions. And I think that is also important to be commented on because I think that like you say there is no answer, but there is no point pretending that it doesn’t exist, and that it is just as damaging as anything else.

The strength of the bond between Oskar and Eli is a powerful one. But tell me, what are some of the best things about working with each other.

 Rhian: That we’re a menace! (both laugh). An absolute menace! I think we were quite lucky in that literally day one we clocked eyes, and we were like…’I trust you’, this is going to be fine. And it really has been. We’ve just been able to build on that. I will say that Bryony spent the first week trying to get us to tap into that childhood bond that you make with someone. It’s silly. You can’t quite explain it, but you just look at each other and giggle.

 Pete: And she’s kind of created a monster (laughs)

 Rhian: She really has, because now, she can’t bring it down again. It’s been a *******  joy to work with Pete.

 Pete: I consider yourself, the same. I think that’s all it is. I was so excited to come in the room, but also so terrified knowing the kind of weight that was put on Oskar and Eli’s connection. Because we didn’t get to do a chemistry read together. So I had no idea who I was walking into the room with, other than a name, and knowledge that you’d worked on vampire media before.

Rhian: Stop it! (both laugh)

 Pete: We don’t even get to see each other for the first few scenes, so we didn’t launch into it immediately. We worked chronologically through the play, and that has allowed us to build each moment of meeting interaction.

For me, a real watershed moment for us was that moment that they get to touch for the first time. Obviously there’s a level of performance… but yeh, the floodgates opened. That moment always feels really special to me and I think that is quite indicative of how much we are holding back from each other in the show, because we are so comfortable with each other. And then having that moment of release and being able to move forward for the rest of the story, together.

Rhian: It’s very rare as an actor that you get to look at somebody else, and just know… ‘Ok. I’ve got you…. And you’ve got me…. So we can just do this.’ And that is what it has been for us both.

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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