Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, charting the dual-natured existence of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is well-trodden turf, having seen adaptations aplenty on television, radio, film and, of course, stage. Flipping the Bird, then, took on a somewhat masochistic challenge in bringing it up to the Fringe. Indeed, they did well.
Between the costumes and the backdrop, we are firmly planted on the gothic streets of Victorian England. We sit in the company of two men whose names have become an illegible scrawl in my notebook owing to the atmospheric darkness of the show and who watch with the same avidity as the audience themselves as the story comes to life before them. The style of acting belongs to the gothic macabre without descending into silliness: every word is placed with quiet emphasis, every moment accentuated to great ambient effect. The two stare with an inexorable intentness at the characters before them, capturing in turn the melodramatic horror inherent in the Victorian novel from which this piece was drawn.
This a script that embraces subtlety and crescendo. Jonathan Holloway’s ear for tone is intuitive and thoughtful: there is a rhythmic staccato to the piece that pays homage to the conventions of its literary precursors, those that depict an interiorised conflict between social composure and the suppression of one’s human nature. In avoiding the basic good-bad divide to which the dichotomy between animal instinct and social adherence may so easily be reduced, Holloway reveals an acute intelligence and a great respect for a work from which he asks, not demands the right, to adapt in an innovative way.
There is an attention to detail that far exceeds the immediately noticeable. The lighting design, primarily, is a demonstration of technical prowess on a level exceeding that of anything else I have seen at the Fringe. Faces, painted a spectral white, become gaunt skulls in the intersection of shadows and dim light: eyes become more expressive, cheekbones more prominent, lips more articulated. All the while, the cellist and his counterpart are thrown into shadow at the back of the stage, visibly attentive but hidden enough that the spare musical accompaniment doesn’t so much as play across the stage as creep out of the shadows.
There are moments where the line between pomposity of the characters and pomposity of the writing becomes blurred. Flipping the Bird know they’ve made a good piece of theatre here, but occasionally it ran the risk of becoming a little self-indulgent. Still, I would worry more about these specifics if the piece wasn’t strong enough and it most certainly is that.