Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein became a cult classic upon its release in 1974, its whipcrack New York humour tearing holes through the tired tropes of Hammer horror. Like another of his endlessly quotable movies, The Producers, in 2007 Brooks decided to transport Young Frankenstein to the stage, first in the US and now, premiering in Newcastle, to the UK.
It’s quite a coup for the Theatre Royal, and one that has seen the show packed out night after night. The now-91-year-old comedy legend has even been around these parts, ducking out of the labyrinthine theatre through one of its many exits to avoid overeager fans of his work.
And that’s the risk with reinventing an iconic film like Young Frankenstein for the stage: stray too far from what made the film so popular and you risk alienating your audience. Hew too close and the incredibly able theatrical stars look a little dull in comparison to the once-in-a-generation talents that shone from the silver screen.
This performance manages to thread the eye of the needle. All the classic lines are there, easy to pick out because the audience laughs and claps in recognition a little earlier than the rest of the jokes. And there are nods to the original, with some of the best jokes delivered with a self-referential wink and a nudge, as if the actors are as big fans of the film as the audience. But each character comes into their own in their own unique way, and Brooks’ New York humour has been combined with a bumbling British comedy of errors to produce something different to the film.
Hadley Fraser as Frederick Frankenstein (please, call him Fronk-en-steen) and Ross Noble as his trusty sidekick Igor have the biggest mountain to climb. Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman’s portrayals of the manic doctor and his bug-eyed servant still live large in the imagination today. Fraser decides to turn down the excitement a few notches, and delivers a creditable performance, the glue that holds the narrative together. Local lad Noble, meanwhile, still has the hunch of the servant, but takes on a gravelly Cockney accent, making his large frame small with a spooky stoop. (He also saved a potentially awkward point in the production, when the stage hands hadn’t had time to properly arrange the set, causing the stage curtain to drop. His ad libbed routine with Fraser at the front of the stage, little more than a single lewd joke about Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, would have made Mel Brooks proud for its ingenuity.)
Lesley Joseph has appeared in enough comedies throughout her career to be able to sleepwalk through this, but she brings a Teutonic verve to Frau Blucher, and immediately steals the show with her Chicago-like performance of ‘He Vas My Boyfriend’. Summer Strallen (read our interview with her here) channels the mucky sex comedies of the 1970s when playing Inga, Frankenstein’s ditzy, doe-eyed assistant, giving her lines as if she’s in a Carry On film.
Playing a character that doesn’t enter the fray until around a third of the way through the production, and then spends all but the last few minutes mute is a difficult enough proposition, but Shuler Hensley as the Monster does so under an unconvincing swimming cap, green makeup and platform shoes. Yet he still manages to inject humanity into the creature using only blinks and the silent movement of his mouth, so much so that the audience is cheering him on when he gets the chance to perform his final top hat and tails song and dance number, Puttin’ on the Ritz.
The staging was slick and impressive, with plenty of in-jokes for those who know their Romanian history (the paintings on the walls of Castle Frankenstein are pastiches of actual Romanian royal family portraits), and will transfer well to the bigger West End stage at the end of September when we lose our little piece of history. But hopefully Mel Brooks enjoyed his time in Newcastle, and the receptive audiences to his iconic comedy. We’re hoping he might even be back soon. Blazing Saddles next, please?
Young Frankenstein is at Theatre Royal, Newcastle until 9 September, before transferring to the Garrick Theatre in London on 28 September.