NB: these are my notes, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
The Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Låt den Rätte Komma In, published in English as Let the Right One In, has unusually manifested in multiple adaptations, each of which takes a slightly different approach to the material. Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish-language film, scripted by Lindqvist, is a faithful, if streamlined adaptation of the novel, which is mostly set in a grim Stockholm suburb in the early 1980s. The international success of Alfredson’s movie inspired Hammer Films to mount a remake, Let Me In (2010), which relocates the action to Los Alamos, New Mexico, but keeps the Reagan era backdrop and goes back to the book for some structural tricks. Lindqvist also adapted his book for the stage in 2010, but the production currently running at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, was scripted in 2013 by Jack Thorne (The Fades) and directed by Jack Tiffany. This show premiered in Dundee in 2013 and is getting a West End run after a successful London try-out at the Royal Court Theatre.
It’s unusual for a contemporary horror novel to get a stage adaptation – the last one I can think of is Stephen King’s Misery, which has a two-character/confined setting format that transferred well – and Thorne has to trim the material even more radically than the two movie adaptations, losing major supporting characters and sub-plots (notably, the investigations into the vampire murders and the activities of the local grown-up drunks) and curtailing almost all of the elaborate backstory the book gives its vampire (though this is the first adaptation to give her full name, Elias Jansen). It also makes its ageless character more ageless because this is a story that would be very difficult to stage with twelve-year-old performers, so the putupon Oskar (Martin Quinn), the vampire waif Eli (Rebecca Benson) and the playground bullies Jonny (Graeme Dalling) and Micke (Christian Ortega) are represented as indeterminate teenagers. This is actually quite a disturbing effect, since the characters alternate between acting like little kids – digging in sandpits, playing with Star Wars toys, shoplifting in a sweet-shop – and savage near-adults, brandishing knives and intensely abusing one another.
It’s been true of all versions of this story, but somehow the scenes of kids being beastly are always more upsetting than the various gruesome supernatural or serial murdering effects. Though names (and a newspaper) establish that this is still set in Sweden, playing the script with strong Scots accents highlights the cruelties and the wistfulness – insults and swear-words snarled with a Glasgow edge bite home more nastily, while Benson’s strange, dissociated speeches and confessions evoke R.L. Stevenson’s bogey tales. Thorne stresses Oskar’s odd, fractured relationships with his parents, which are more sexualised with older actors – his mother (Susan Vidler) snuggles up to him in bed in a way that foreshadows his sexless-yet-intimate connection with Eli and his father (Gary MacKay) breaks off a game to get drunk with his own bad influence best friend.
The stage is set with a wintery forest of tall straight trees with branches that stick out to signal that someone will eventually be scurrying up and down them, and a single structure that starts out as a climbing frame but converts into a tank-like swimming pool for the climax – which involves a very real-seeming ordeal. There’s one great theatrical scare moment – which, oddly, made me jump more the second time I saw the show – that manages to work by indicating what will happen before it does rather than by springing a complete surprise. Blood seeps and spurts from victims and vampire alike, and there’s a proper Theatre du Grand-Guignol effect, accomplished with smoke and lighting, as Renfield-like vampire’s minion Hakan (Clive Mendus) disfigures himself with acid when cornered. The fairy tale setting allows for strange, near-dance interludes spun from prosaic incidents like Oskar’s defiant tree-stabbing but the dialogue and playing insist on grounded, painful reality.
Benson has to be more physical than other actors who’ve taken the role, climbing trees and leaking blood with only stage effects to back her up … she also manages to bring out Eli’s childishness in a way that the movies didn’t, bonding with Oskar over their teasing of an inoffensive grown-up and bragging that her Fabergé Easter Egg is worth more than a nuclear power station.
In presenting oft-told tales in new media, there’s a tendency to dwell on minutiae – Thorne clarifies a few plot points, notably a moment in the climax that underlines the rules about inviting vampires into buildings even in moments of extreme need. One of the strengths of this story is that all the versions take varying, legitimate tacks with the material (even Let Me In deserves respect) and address the same themes in complementary manner. If you want to know Eli’s origins, you have to read the book – like the Swedish film, this seems to reveal that she wasn’t born a girl, though she now insists she isn’t anything; indeed, stuttering at the v-word, she even claims she’s trying not to be a vampire.