Review: Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show (The Spread Eagle Theatre)

By - Friday 8th November, 2013

Liz Sheppard Jones tells a tale of two spaces as she enjoys Croydon’s newest theatre

The Spread Eagle Theatre
Time from East Croydon  8 mins

In the week that the delayed demolition of Croydon’s Warehouse Theatre finally took place, and its former stage on the corner of Dingwall Road and George Street was bared to the autumn sky, it was therefore exciting to visit the new theatre above the Spreadeagle pub in Katharine Street for the first time. When one space closes, another opens, and however depressing the desolation wrought on the arts in our town has been, Croydon is irrepressible – its creativity too strong to be kept down for long. Lay waste as bureaucrats may – the artists will rebuild.

Upstairs at the Spreadeagle, a welcoming new theatre space as been created. It all feels excitingly thrown together – the audience reached our seats by stepping through a gap in the backdrop and climbing over the stage itself – and this seat-of-the-pants quality was emphasised by a major failure of lighting early on in the production. Lead actor and compere Justin Cliffe handled the glitch with relish and in true Victorian music hall style, keeping the gags rolling and the audience voting with cries of ‘Aye!’ for the performance to be continued in the gloom – and from that moment we were eating from the palm of his hand. In any case, the additional shadows over the stage  were in keeping with the story of Frankenstein’s monster, albeit in this telling not quite as originally imagined by young Mrs Shelley.

However depressing the desolation wrought on the arts in our town has been, Croydon is irrepressible

The monster in the movies

There’s always a sense of adventure and spontaneity in a theatre over a pub, and the Tin Shed Theatre Company’s bawdy story-within-a-story worked superbly well here. A troupe of travelling freaks – the bearded lady, the lobster man – are bullied by their manager into an enactment of Mary Shelley’s tale of the fear of science and progress and the horrors that might be created as humans gain control over the fabric of life.  In an age that talks of ‘Frankenstein foods’ and manages to generate hysteria around GM food technology even as population increase and climate change threaten a coming age of shortage, even of famine, it’s worth remembering that the Creature created by Victor Frankenstein wants above all to be accepted. It isn’t pretty, but its appearance is not of its own making, and it grows dangerous and violent only when it faces rejection. Croydon too can respond with a reflex of rejection when something large, new-fangled and unexpected – a very high building, for example – looms on an architect’s plan. The telling Shelleyan line, ‘If I cannot inspire love – I will cause fear!’  would work splendidly on a billboard in George Street.

The Tin Shed Theatre Company’s Travelling Freak Show

The production’s influences were various – Pulchinello, Javanese shadow puppetry and the stylisation of Japanese Kabuki theatre all adding additional layers of menace. It comes together and works thanks to the verve and commitment of  the Tin Shed Theatre Company, and in particular to their skill with puppets, which deserves a special mention.  While the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, still running in the West End, showcases the puppeteer’s craft on a grand scale, here in the Spreadeagle it happens in miniature and is equally mesmerising.

The play re-tells a large part of the Frankenstein novel faithfully as a play within a play, shifting sometimes comically, sometimes horrifically between the two intertwining stories.   The horror is real and the laughs go right to your belly.   It’s a great show kept up-close-and-personal by the scale of the venue, and the sense of personal connection continued when I spoke afterwards to the Spreadeagle’s manager Robin Butler about how the space – only the second Fuller’s theatre in the country, after the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham – came to be created.  The response he’s received has been heart-warming and it’s great to hear the confidence and pleasure of its originators as the new initiative thrives. Once again, Croydon shows its appetite for culture, experimentation and a night out that doesn’t involve a mega-brand, a multiplex and a box of popcorn costing four quid.

Dr Frankenstein’s Travelling Freak Show runs every evening this week although there will sadly not be a weekend performance. Shows planned for next year will run on Saturdays too.  You’ve one more chance to see it tonight, and I recommend that you do.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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