Let the Right One In opened at the Royal Court Theatre on Thursday evening. Originally performed in Dundee last June as a National Theatre of Scotland production, it is bound after the Royal Court for the West End. The production, an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, is sinister and spellbinding.
Prior to the start, various actors from the cast walk noiselessly across the stage, weaving in and out of the barren trees that dominate the set, tramping on a dusting of fake snow. The atmosphere is mundane—kids chasing each other around, a man relieving himself on a tree. Then the lights go down. Within seconds, the pristine snow is spattered with bright-red blood, as good an indication as any that normalcy is not part of the evening’s agenda. A gruesome murder serves a chilling opening for a chilling production.
The story, obscure as it is for much of the first act, centers on Oskar, an adolescent bullied brutally by his peers and emotionally stifled by his divorced and perpetually drunk parents; and Eli, a young girl who moves in next door with a mysterious older man, smells strange and maintains an unusual diet.
Together, they make quite a pair, and one of the play’s great pleasures is watching their relationship progress. Martin Quinn, making his professional stage debut as Oskar, does well as a repressed boy caught in a cycle of violence. He masks the hurt with boyish bravado in front of his mother, who is fooled, and Eli, who is not. Oskar’s oft-repeated refrain is a submissive “OK,” a verbal shrug of the shoulders usually accompanied by a resigned look. Quinn gives Oskar a blunt charm, even though he occasionally appears amused when he should be bemused (and vice versa). By contrast, Rebecca Benson’s Eli is an enigma, alternately affectionate and cold, fun-loving and cunning, a companion and a killer. Benson’s physical agility and matter-of-fact delivery do justice to the complicated nature of her role, and her sudden transformations from a shy child into a mean, howling creature are startling and highly effective.
Leading the way in the strong supporting cast is Graeme Dalling, with a perfectly loathsome performance as the bully Jonny. But even when Jonny finally gets what’s coming to him, the result is far from satisfying. In this show, bullying is not the sole property of the bad guys: it comes in other forms, whether from the angry policeman Halmberg (Stephen McCole) interrogating a suspect or Oskar insulting a sweet shop owner. Let the Right One In expertly shows that there’s a dark side to everyone. Typical notions of good and evil just don’t compute; it’s no coincidence that Eli, who functions as a kind of spiritual saviour for Oskar, also does an awful lot of killing.
This is not a gentle play. It tries to shock you, and shock you, and shock you again, to expose as many raw nerves and provoke as many emotional responses as is possible in a quick two hours and twenty minutes. It hits the mark nearly every time, and not just through acting. Highlights include one of the set’s only permanent structures, a metallic thing that looks like a cross between a playground piece and a Houdini stunt chamber, and some gorgeous dance and fight scenes that showcase Eli’s ferocious energy. Not everything works: a bizarre kind of half-sleeping sequence between Oskar and his mother as they share a bed for mutual comfort feels out-of-place and oddly formal, and staccato bursts of techno music at climactic moments suggest a bit of pandering to the play’s target audience of mature teenagers.
If you are looking for a challenging experience that will make your sensibilities somersault, you had best let yourself in to this rendition of Let the Right One In while you still have the chance.
Let The Right One In is showing at the Royal Court until Saturday 21st December, tickets here.
PHOTO / Royal Court