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Metamorphosis (Frantic Assembly) - REVIEW

Transformational show is thought-provoking

We audiences have come to rely on Frantic Assembly for exciting innovation and sometimes challenging ideas; you never know quite what to expect but as in this latest co-production with Plymouth Theatre Royal, it’s invariably worthwhile.

In a richly lyrical new adaptation by poet Lemm Sissay, Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella about Gregor, a young man who wakes up to find he has been shockingly transformed into a hideous insect, is brought to life with vivid, visual vitality.

As you might expect from such a starting point, the aim here is not realism, but you get to see the reality of his working life and family life explored in a way that is often shocking but also thought-provoking. Does YOUR job make you feel like a drone? Cannon fodder for capitalism? How strong are your family ties? And how do you deceive yourself just to get through the day? This 1915 story has plenty of resonance today

Life isn’t easy for the Samsa family: “If these wall could speak, they wouldn’t, they would wail,” we are told. Gregor (Felipe Pacheco, showing great physical strength and flexibility) is a salesman providing for his mother and sister (Louise May Newberry and Hannah Sinclair Robinson respectively) as well as his out-of-work but controlling father (Troy Glasgow). His earning also go towards paying off debts that his father has incurred.

But following his inexplicable insect transformation, he can’t work and the chief clerk appears, demanding that the debts are settled. Pressure mounts. It’s a financial nightmare and the heat is on him AND the family. Family ties are strained - especially when they have to take in a lodger (menacing Joe Layton) who sees their shabby home as an investment opportunity.

Longtime Frantic director Scott Graham has worked closely with adaptor Lemm Sissay to give us wonderfully repetitive scenes that show the grinding monotony that a wage slave can endure as well as startlingly beautiful images that pack a punch. Lighting designer Simisola Majekodunmi deserves special praise for her work in creating moods and shadows that draw you into this nightmarish world. Pacheco’s scuttling around Jon Bausor’s excellently boxed in and dowdy set, is another plus.

In places during the first half, I struggled to connect to the play’s world: fast flashing images, perhaps designed to give context (“A man is what a man does!”) were hard to decipher and could be distracting. There were captions too and I found myself reading the text at times rather than watching the performance. But by the second half, things were so engrossing that you are swept along - and even those familiar with the story are left wondering what will happen next.

Frantic are very much on the school syllabus, and there were eight school parties in. Maybe a couple of GCSE students were still coming up to speed on theatre protocol (whispered commentary) but it was a grey-haired audience member who was checking her texts on a glowing screen. The students’ engagement and zest for what they were seeing shows how mind stretching and potent theatre can be for young people. Their energy was a bonus.

By the way, fans can see writer Lemm Sissay live at the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival on Saturday 23 September 23.

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