[Martin Quinn as Oskar and Rebecca Benson as Eli in Let The Right One In. Image Source]
I went into this show with no expectations whatsoever. I’ve never read the bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, nor have I seen the Swedish and American film adaptations. All I knew was that the story somehow involved vampires.
Never having liked horror all that much (apart from a brief flirtation with Anne Rice’s vampires as a teen), I did not expect to be all too impressed. The recent revival of vampires in pop culture has made me all the more reluctant to pay the genre too much attention. However, a last-minute dinner plan cancellation led to me buying a ticket to the show on a whim. Despite my hard-headedness, I was vaguely aware of the acclaim the show has been receiving (it is hard to orbit London’s theatre circles without doing so) and I was soon on my way to the Apollo in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.
It was only then I made the connection: this was the very same theatre whose ceiling had collapsed last December, injuring a number of audience-members. For a moment, I was nervous, but upon entering the theatre those fears were soon allayed: the building has been beautifully refurbished, and the domed ceiling has been turned into a firmament – with the moon, twinkly stars and bare tree branches clearly in sight. This night-sky painting echoes the mood of the show itself which, in this production by the National Theatre of Scotland, has been transposed from Sweden to somewhere near Dundee. An odd decision indeed, as the play retains a distinctly Nordic feel to it – from the Scandinavian names of the characters, to Ólafur Arnald’s musical score which is reminiscent of early Sigur Rós. The mood of the play, helped by designer Christine Jones’s stunningly bleak frosty forest set, whispers of ages-old Norse myths and folklore and winter melancholy – something my Swedish friend says is known as “svårmod”.
That said, Let The Right One In tells a story which is fundamentally about loneliness, and that is something which exists universally.
We meet awkward, bullied teenager (Martin Quinn) who manages to maintain a sense of hope and goodness despite everything. He is all limbs and tentative shrugs and is – after all – only a boy, who still plays at knights and dragons and who loves nothing better than a handful of sweets from the local shop. He lives on an estate with his single mother, portrayed sympathetically by Susan Vidler, who drinks to drown her sorrows and expects more attention from her child than he can give her.
Oskar’s life changes when he meets the new girl next door – Eli, played by Rebecca Benson, whose slightly irritating lilting delivery is more than made up for by her physical performance, which successfully toes the line between child and feral cat. Her Eli is fragile and pale, but her often strange movements and insightful lines betray a wisdom that comes only with age.
It is not long before we learn the truth: Eli is a centuries-old being who requires blood for sustenance, although she does not like being referred to as a vampire. She is a reluctant predator who has no choice but to kill to survive. We are not told why she is the way she is, only that she is who she is – Eli – and has been so for a very long time. We are only shown a couple of her kills, and it is just as well, because the show does not hold back, opting instead to build suspense which inevitably leads to its bloody denouement. In a nod to schlock horror, the show delights in the presence of dark, tarry blood to evoke visceral horror among the audience. The image of deep red blood staining the all-blanketing snow is a hard one to shake off.
Equally disturbing are the scenes of Oskar being relentlessly bullied at school, repeatedly called names and physically tormented. It is heartbreaking when he finally tells his well-meaning but ineffective gym teacher (Gavin Kean): “You could have done more.”
As outsiders, Oskar and Eli establish a connection and strive to defend each other, although Oskar does not fully understand the price of this friendship. On the other hand we, the audience, are offered a glimpse of hindsight through the character of Hakan (Clive Mendus) – ostensibly Eli’s downtrodden father, but whom we soon learn is her protector. He is infatuated by her, but has become weakened by age while Eli is perpetually youthful. We catch sight of the doomed circularity of it all, and wonder whether Oskar will someday suffer a similar fate.
The dialogue in the play is often cumbersome, and a few interpretative dance interludes (while I can understand the impetus behind them) often lead to a palpable drop in the show’s energy.
Even so, a constant air of wistfulness and tender humanity belies the production, which is haunting and often ethereal. Exploring themes such as loneliness, compassion, childhood, and companionship, it is one of the highlights of the current theatre season.