Reviewed by Matt Forrest
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
“It’s grim up North”, a phrase we’re all so used to hearing, so much so that sometimes we may well just believe it. Well, the North isn’t as grim as some will have you believe, and it certainly isn’t as grim as the lives of Eli and Oskar, the central characters at the heart of writer Jon Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel, Let the Right One In.
I bring up the North because Lindqvist’s book takes place in Stockholm, however this adaptation takes place in an unnamed frozen landscape populated by a great many accents from the North West of England, which for me gives the production a great deal of charm and an injection of humour.
However, the central narrative is anything but fun. For teenage outcast Oskar (Pete MacHale), life is pretty tough: he’s a loner who is constantly bullied at school, living with an alcoholic mum, with very little interaction from his father. In addition to his personal issues, his local community is in the shadow of a series of grizzly murders.
Whilst out playing, the young teenager meets mysterious teenager Eli (Rhian Blundell), who, along with an elderly gentleman, Hakan (Andrew Sheridan) have moved next door to Oskar and his mum. Despite a shaky start where Oskar informs Eli that she “smells like his dog”, the two begin a friendship.
However all is not what it seems with Eli and Hakan, between them they are responsible for the town’s murders, for Eli is a vampire and Hakan is her captur/acolyte. The blossoming relationship, between Eli and Oskar, sees a jealous Hakan take drastic action that will jeopardise the safety of Eli and Oskar and will set both on a journey that neither could imagine.
Writer Jack Thorne and director Bryony Shanahan have created a bleak, at times brutal, production with a tender under-belly, that one moment has you shocked to your core and within the blink of eye will see you raise a smile. Those expecting a Halloween ‘jump’ feast should curb their expectations. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of horror right from the start, but these are few and far between and when they come, they hit your senses like a punch to the gut.
The cast are superb: Rhian Blundell and Pete MacHale are outstanding as the young couple; their relationship is the glue that holds this together and both give performances filled with naivety, angst and humour. It’s their relationship that leaves a lasting impression, more so than any other aspect of the production.
They are supported by a fine group of actors, with standout turns from Andrew Sheridan as the deplorable Hakan, who manages to make you feel some sympathy for a truly reprehensible character. Whilst Stefan Race as school bully, Jonny, who for my money is the real villain of the piece, simply makes your skin crawl in every scene he’s in which is a great achievement when you consider the rogues and deviants on display here!
The creative team have created a cold, bleak world, perfect for the story. There are some truly innovative uses of the vast open space of the Royal Exchange’s ‘in the round’ staging. The swimming people finale is a particular highlight.
Fans of the source material will get a great deal from this production, whilst for newbies this is a satisfying introduction to such a beloved piece of work. As a night at the theatre goes, this is a well crafted, exceptionally told story, as tender as it is uncompromising and more than warrants a night out during this season of the witch.
Let the Right One In is at Royal Exchange until the 19th November. Tickets can be found here .