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Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Let the Right One In // THEATRE PRODUCTION @ ROYAL COURT, LONDON (December 2013) ~ "This is not a vampire story. This is not a love story. This is all about what it means to be 'nothing' . . ."


* Many plot spoilers hide in the woods below - don't let them in before seeing the play, unless you want to! *

On a very wet and wintry night; rain lashing against the umbrellas of the masses exiting Sloane Square tube station, or spitting against the pavements with childlike venom, I rush inside the doors of the Royal Court Theatre. The auditorium is already crowded, and many theatregoers head downstairs into the bistro and bar below; a bustling old-fashioned theatre across four floors. The stage adaptation of the deliciously unnerving, beautiful Swedish horror film about a vampire child and her blood-letting ways - LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, is sold out. It has been sold out for all of its month long run in London. You would have to bite a neck to obtain a spare. Luckily, I have mine clutched tightly to my beating chest (beating faster as going up and down the steep steps of all four floors is hard work). Still, more pumping of blood means more vampires might stir - on a night like this, I won't mind.

The film version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN followed a bullied boy called Oskar (played by Kare Hedebrant with detached obsession) and his meeting of a strange girl in the lonely playground at night. The girl is Eli (in the film version played by Lina Leandersson, with violent withdrawal and dangerous isolation). Of course, Leandersson's Eli has become something of a cult icon in horror cinema; wild dark hair and woollen-chic affecting many of the younger fans watching the play tonight - also still keeping their beanie hats on in the warm. For a film about loners, it's entirely suitable that there are few large groups in the audience: many watch alone. Rare in other theatre productions, there's a palpable sense of power and anticipation that seethes through the rows in the balcony where I sit. This is beyond theatre - many fans take the story of Oskar and Eli very seriously indeed. It better be good.

The script of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, was based on the novel by John Ajvide Linqvist who also wrote the screenplay; an epic snowstorm of gender-moulding, coming of age romance-usurping, horror genre-redefining thrills threaded with a thick artery's worth of stark horror and violent redemption. A streak of sadness runs through the story: Eli has a helper, Hakan, an old man who kills to feed her with blood (though we are never really blatantly fed the idea that Eli is a vampire as such, she tells us: "I’m not that. I live on blood. But I am not . . that.").

At first, Hakan seems like a lecherous older man lusting after a young girl - of course, by the end of the story, we realise that Hakan would once have been a man (perhaps a boy) the same age as Eli; he grew old, she didn't. Their story is as tragic and moving as the awkward love story developing between Oskar and Eli - history; eternal history, repeating itself. At the end of the story and of the stage production; Eli and Oskar travel by train to destinations unknown. It's heart-warming in a way; but also an awful thought that as the boy gets old, his relationship with the eternally young Eli (should her eternal status be real - we are never entirely sure whether her life is one of actual violence or real vampiric longing and survival) will grow increasingly unnatural; unacceptable to the outside world; unable to be observed without being hidden. Oskar has become a protector - but he could also have become a killer for the rest of his life. There are no other vampires in the book or film: only bloodletters. Eli is a one-off. This could be the greatest love story ever told - or the worst kind of serial killing spree from an early age ever recorded.

The original 2008 film version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, is one of the greatest horror movies ever filmed: it is, in a word; perfect. The actors portraying Oskar and Eli are no longer actors; they have become the roles by the end of the movie (actually, from the very start) and it would be difficult to imagine a different cast doing so well. Eli's voice is over-dubbed to make it deeper and suggest age but this doesn't matter: the actress has already made the role her own through movement and a portrayal that comes mainly from the eyes; in the same way Sissy Spacek worked iconic horror role Carrie through the eyes for the adaptation of the Stephen King novel in 1976.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN was a film that also seduced us with its music - a deliciously wild, free and oppressive piano-led, ominous sulk of a score from Johan Söderqvist as well as Per Gessle and Agnetha Faltskog. And the visuals, from director Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema; of wintry suburban landscapes, parks and housing estates are unique in horror cinema, the effects (including Eli's jumping for the jugular and her climatic swimming pool killings) suitably swift and violent. But there's real beauty in the film, and the book as well. Something so different to the usual vampire movie, that it would be hard for any modern day author or filmmaker to reach such an independence of creative thought.

The English language remake, involving the revived Hammer Film Studios, with Chloe Grace Moretz in the role of vampire girl Abby and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen is richer, less desolate, equally striking as the original. Moretz offers the role a sulky cool; almost pained existence and for a teenage actress adds unexpected maturity to the character; a weight of the world. Smit-McPhee is also outstanding and offers a quiet otherworldly acceptance of violent, odd fate. The remake, though perhaps not as strikingly different as the original - or as cold, enigmatic and brooding, comes close. Moretz has a less gothic, drowned-in-circumstance, or powerfully sickly feel to her portrayal than Leandersson's Eli - there's more fight, a rougher-edge with Moretz, feistier perhaps and certainly wilder of bedraggled hair and venomous, tainted glances.

Tonight's stage version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN comes with a gently modernised and homegrown twist (adding Glasgow ruffians on the prowl in the woodland around the local estates - though the setting here is undisclosed); and a script with playful, delicate and often witty precision, as sharp as a young vampire's incisors (though I was still overwhelmed by the sadness of the script rather than the laughs that some others in the audience seemed to tune in to more often).

Rebecca Benson plays Eli. She has the look of Chloe Grace Moretz's Abby with hair brushed back like a predatory Jack Frost, rather than the more 'emo' Eli of the original movie. There is real isolation to her portrayal; loneliness - but an observer of events; clinging to high branches and scuttling up trees. Her voice is awkward and faltering; as if her overwhelming sadness or boredom makes it hard to talk out loud. Maybe, after so many years of doing so; it has become a weary chore. She talks to Oskar in snippets of pensive jabs of statement; almost accusatory flicks of the tongue, in a language almost ancient and unobtainable; almost a tone of pleading for her life.
©Manuel Harlan
Oskar is played by Martin Quinn. A newcomer to acting, he's older than the Oskar of the films and visually looks a lot more like the quiet, brown-haired boy of the remake movie; Owen. Awkward and gangly, his expression is one of resignation to everything - from bullying, to a relationship of sorts with a nocturnal vampire girl who tells him she's not a vampire or even a girl: "I am nothing".

Eli's older companion, Hakan, played by Ewan Stewart imbues the role of dirty old man (in the eyes of society) with a tragic, humble and weary take - he knows his time is nearly over in Eli's existence; is slowing down and making mistakes. His usefulness is almost over. In a way, the play, book and films are as much about Hakan's own circle of tragedy as they are about Oskar's - but worse; he is losing the love of Eli, is becoming the creepier one in the relationship; the potential abductor and abuser, when all he really ever wanted to be was a friend and protector (clearly, later on, a lover too). You can't help but dislike Hakan - everything outwardly about the role is sinister and ugly (even his face, scarred by acid, in the face of youthful beauty, revolts others), but by the end of the story; there's an understanding of sorts between us and him.

There's strong support in the play from the violent bully and tormentor of Eli - Jonny (played by a simmering, dogged Graeme Dalling) and Stephen McCole especially good and a vital source of stability to the wild, oppressive plotlines as kindly and concerned (but entirely ineffective) PE teacher Mr Avila.

©Manuel Harlan

Let the Right One In, is brought to the stage by the National Theatre of Scotland and is enriched by a filmic score from the work of Ólafur Arnalds; a piano-led infusion of blanketing sultriness, similar to that of the original movie. 

Set design from Christine Jones is sparse, bleak, richly unforgettable and special effects clank jaws to the floor: the trees that Eli climbs up dominate the stage and the brutal hanging and slitting of throats (or the moment Eli enters Oskar's house without being asked and starts to bleed in angry tributaries all across her face) draw gasps. But there are subtler design touches that dominate: from the simple box that Eli sleeps in to the iconic climbing frame in the playground - as well as some effects that are unlike anything seen on a small stage before: especially the fast-filling tank that Oskar is nearly drowned in and that is a design masterpiece (the actor really does get to hold his breath for an uncomfortable time here, as he is held under the water in this astonishing setpiece).

The trees that Eli climbs and hangs from, as a constant observer of what goes on below (an effect best appreciated from the rafters!) also reminded me - a little obscurely - of the island girl Katrin from Joe Sarno's 1977 Swedish sleaze classic Kärleksön in which a girl watches the lusty antics of a family below her (and occasionally jumps down and joins in) - from the branches of the trees above them!

©Manuel Harlan

The original novel and films of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN had a memorable scene involving a burning bed in a hospital - this scene isn't recreated here, though presumably it must be a consideration for the recently announced West End transfer, on a larger stage. The climatic sequence; where Eli takes revenge on the bullies; is bathed in red light and sprawling bodies but best of all is Rebecca Benson's style of retribution for Eli that sees the actress contort her body into unnatural shapes and predatory poses (much like Carrie White before her once did in the film version of Stephen King's story): a staccato, twitchy striking down of her (or Oskar's) enemies. Carrie and Eli are not that far removed in their loner-led provoked aggression (interestingly, Chloe Moretz also starred as the main character in the CARRIE remake, just like she did in LET ME IN) though Eli's aggression seems more natural and deliberate (Carrie's anger is almost involuntary) - by the end of the story we realise that Eli's protection of Oskar may even be a selfish act; a fight for her own survival.

Chloe Moretz as CARRIE

Sissy Spacek as CARRIE

Chloe Moretz as ABBY

Lina Leandersson as ELI

Rebecca Benson as ELI/ on stage
Sometimes the cast literally dance in time to Eli's nightmares and reactions; everyone controlled by this young girl. As Eli clings to trees in the wintry woodland after dark or tiptoes across the slippery climbing frames in the park; this becomes a staggeringly effective burst vein filling the head with the threatened powers of the lonely and the oppressed; a meditation on how youth isn't just bewilderment but strength and possibility - and an unforgettable meditation on the predetermination of existence; of the eternal boredom of the outsider's view of the world, the overwhelming need for revenge, and how love is the only feeling that gathers all these emotions and desires together.

©Manuel Harlan
This is not a vampire story. This is not a love story. This is all about what it means to be 'nothing'. It's a broody, blood-splattery triumph of a production and deserves its upcoming and hoped-for long run in the West End in whichever theatre has dared to let this quite astounding production back in: don't miss your chance when it returns.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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