I have never understood the craze for vampire stories, Twilight or otherwise, so it won’t come as a surprise if I tell you that I neither saw John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2008 film nor read his 2004 book of the same title. Last night, however, I saw Jack Thorne’s adaptation for the stage of Let the Right One In, which is, I am told, faithful to Lindqvist’s original story.
Some critics have called it a vampire love story but I would disagree. Our main protagonist, Oskar, is a teenager who is bullied at school and let down by every adult in his life and is ultimately preyed upon by a local teenage girl called Eli. I say, “preyed upon” because theirs is not a romantic alliance but more one of convenience. Both are outcasts. Oskar moves between two equally unattractive worlds, one where his divorced parents alternatively ignore, manipulate and fob the poor boy onto each other and school were he is taunted by his classmates and let down by his teachers. Eli, for her part, is an unearthly creature controlled by her “dad”, Hakan, and forbidden from interacting with the outside world.
Turns out that Eli, who has been around for a few hundred years in the body of a teenager (a definition of torture in itself), doesn’t like to be called a vampire (who would?). She does, however, need her quota of blood (otherwise she starts to smell) and has enrolled Hakan for the job. Hakan’s chosen method is to spring upon his victims, gas them to sleep and bleed them to death by slitting their throats. Problem is, it’s hard to stay in one place when your main breadwinner is a blood-seeking older man who roams the local woods looking for victims.
Oskar meets his new neighbour, Eli, on a climbing frame in the forest one night and they soon become friends as only two lonely people can. Striking up a relationship out of reject as oppose to common interests. We gradually come to realise that what looked slightly paedophilic in Hakan’s unnatural desire for Eli, is the fact that they have been together for a very long time indeed. Eli’s guardian is actually her now rejected lover, so not her father after all. But as Hakan’s utility as a blood provider is compromised, Eli must find a substitute watchman to guard over her daily repose and guarantee her liquid intake. Oskar and Eli both need someone to watch over them but for different reasons. When Eli saves Oskar from the school bullies, I couldn’t help but feel that he had made a Faustian pact with the devil.
The friendship, school bullying and criminal investigation into the murders move the play along nicely but I couldn’t muster much excitement for what was happening onstage. I know that London has been afflicted by a cold spell lately (which might have hardened my heart somewhat) but my teenage companion was equally unmoved. There was something quite disconcerting in asking the audience to care for a poor lonely girl who in the space of a few days had conspired to kill four people to ensure her own survival. Surely that has to be one of the best examples of a selfish teenager. I was secretly hoping that in one of the last scenes, Oskar, armed with a sharp knife, might rise to the occasion and kill Eli and put everyone out of their misery, Eli included. That was not to be.
The play, which premiered in Dundee in June, comes to us via the National Theatre of Scotland and is adroitly directed by John Tiffany, the award-winning director of Once and Black Watch and the NTS’s outgoing associate director. Steven Hoggett, the assistant director, has created beautifully choreographed and fluid scenes.
Martin Quinn plays Oskar with flair depicting perfectly the unease of teenagers. He is physicality awkward and constantly unsure of what to think or say but eager to please and be liked. He would be friends with Eli whatever her gender. Rebecca Benson’s Eli is a cat-like pallid girl who speaks with weird eerie detachment. The text implies that she wants to understand Oskar, yet after hundreds of years, she has yet to master that skill. She remains strangely detached and this might be the reason I found it hard to warm up to her character. The rest of the cast provides first-rate support from Susan Vidler (Oskar’s alcoholic mum), Ewan Stewart (Hakan), Chris Reilly (teacher/policeman) and Paul Thomas Hickey (dad et al) though I was a bit confused by the Scandinavian names and Scottish accents.
Christine Jones has created a beautiful set of towering birch trees, which convey an appropriately northern feel to a play where the domestic interior is just as chilling as the snowy Scandinavian forest. The climbing frame is transformed into a swimming pool complete with water (why can’t my bath fill so quickly?).
I have been told that the original was a comment on the post cold-war age of social-democratic affluence and the discontent of its youth. This production, however, is very much based on Oskar’s coming of age and his desperately lonely situation. The real poignancy is indeed to see him fall for a vampire because everyone else has let him down.