Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Review | Jekyll and Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Adapted by Nicholas Briggs

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The first time the story of Jekyll and Hyde really got it's hooks into me were in the 1988 television series Jack The Ripper, starring Michael Caine. A play of the Stevenson classic featured in the series starring Armand Assante in the role of an American actor who could change his facial features mid-scene and in full view of the audience, to complete the transition from Jekyll to Hyde. I was utterly transfixed and terrified, and with my love of Victorian England already fuelled by such television as Doctor Who's The Talons of Weng-Chiang and Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, here was another story from an era that holds more mystique to me than almost any other. 

Most adaptations of the Stevenson story are very liberal in their story changes. The Jack The Ripper series had the Lanyon scene (with Lanyon coincidentally played by Weng-Chiang's Litefoot himself, Trevor Baxter) incorrectly showing Jekyll changing into Hyde when the story was the other way round, and the same company who made the series went on to make their own adaption of Jekyll and Hyde with Michael Caine in the tite role. That too had many elements that weren't in the original story and Caine's casting in itself was to say the least, interesting...

It was a great surprise to me to finally hear many years ago, an abridged reading by Tom Baker to discover how much I simply adored the language of Stevenson in the hands of an actor who was not only my hero, but had a voice that dripped both honey and menace, relished in equal measure by me. The simple music and sound effects added to this reading invoked so much horror that I wasn't able to listen to it at night.

So with my adoration of the source material and of Big Finish, a company who in my opinion deserve much more recognition of their non-Doctor Who output than they appear to receive, I was so very excited to discover towards the end of 2021 that an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde was being released in 2022. But not until August! The wait has been painful, but the time has finally arrived for the release to see the light of day. 

One thing about the Big Finish Classics range I love is that they try very hard to stick as close to the source material as they can. I appreciated this in particular with their version of Frankenstein. What a difficult book this must have been to adapt closely. After all, it is basically a series of letters between people. Jekyll and Hyde is similar with a couple of major letters contained within, but it's not quite as correspondance heavy as Frankenstein. 

Knowing this version of Jekyll and Hyde had been adapted for the stage I assumed it would begin at the beginning with the conversation between Utterson and Enfield. However, I was surprised that it began at the death of Sir Danvers, an event that takes place quite a way into the original story, and then flashes back to that conversation. Initially I thought this was just trying to be original in it's own way, but beginning the story at this point was vital in properly introducing the "team" of the play, namely Utterson and Inspector Newcomen. There is a very good reason the Inspector is so heavily involved with the plot here as opposed to the book. But more of that later. 

I love the way the script has been adapted with dialogue lifted word for word from the original story. It's Stevenson's language and the way he has his characters communicate with each other that appeals to me, so to hear the words being perfomed verbatim, sometimes in ways I least expect, is both refreshing and deeply satisfying.

Director Nick Briggs has managed some dream casting here, with Barnaby Kay as Utterson, the solicitor torn between his moral duty to respect his client's legal rights and deep concern for his friend's physical and mental decline. August 2022 seems to be the month of Barnaby Kay at Big Finish, with him playing the lead in the audio version of U.F.O. and his first River Song script having been released too. 

What is it about Barnaby Edwards that makes him so suited to performing this era? Fantastic as always and such a theatrical persona, he is the perfect Enfield (plus other roles), recounting with horror his first meeting with Hyde yet courageously defending the honour of the family of the young girl assaulted by him. 

John Heffernen plays the dual title roles beautifully, particularly Hyde. Don't imagine you've heard or seen all the ways Hyde can be played. This one is unique and so utterly terrifying on audio. The first meeting with Enfield will stand your hair on end. 

Robert Portal is a constant presence as Inspector Newcomen and I found myself thinking on first listen that the inspector was a little more present than I remembered.... 

Some audio drama can have a tendancy to cast similar voices. That is not the case here. All are unique and very distinctive. None more so than Clare Corbett. Clare plays all the female roles here but none more noticable to me than Mrs Poole, a character who was male in the original story. I would like to hold this production up as an example of what I believe to be real authentic inclusion. 

When Morgan Freeman was asked by a virtuous reporter many years ago whether he felt that there would come a time that racism would no longer be an issue, Freeman replied, "Yes, when people like you stop talking about it." I totally agree.

This is exactly what Nick Briggs has done with Jekyll and Hyde. He has gender-swapped a role, but not for the sake of it. It's a role that could easily be performed by either gender and it doesn't alter the story at all. What I respect most of all, is that this has been done without any mention of it by the cast and crew in the extras or anywhere else. There's no self-congratulation. There's no virtue signalling. It's just been done, and done extremely well. Without any fuss or fanfare. To me, this is true inclusion.

You may be surprised by what I consider to be the most outstanding performance in this play. And that is Nicholas Asbury as Dr Lanyon. Many times I've read the words of Utterson coming to visit the dying Lanyon at his home, and I've had the words read to me by Tom Baker no less, but nothing could prepare me for the power Asbury puts into his performance, particularly in this scene. The amount of inner turmoil that ultimately kills him on seeing Hyde's transformation as displayed here in this performance is enough to make your ears bleed and is nothing short of electrifying. Bravo Mr Asbury! 

A final word here must go to Benji Clifford on sound design. He brings Victorian London alive in beautiful subltle ways, and frightens you to to the core with the slightest of effects on Hyde's voice. He fascinates you with the sound of tea poring into eleagant china and makes you see a hideous monster become a man while you're eyes are closed. These are the plays that remind me why I love audio drama so much. Thanks for all your hard work and attention to detail Benji! 

Oh, and I must also mention how important it is to listen to the extras. It's where you get answers to nagging questions such as why Inspector Newcomen has such a major role. 

Despite the production issues and delays in this release getting to us, I can say it has been worth the wait. I have thoroughly devoured this and imagine it will be on very regular rotation. 

Thank you Nick Briggs and the whole cast and crew for bringing this story to such vivid life. I adore it! 

Dwayne Bunney

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