West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 24 April, 1997

Huge Dayglo maggots flash on and off under the eaves of the West Yorkshire Playhouse whilst a young, hip audience throngs around a temporary cybercafé set up in the bar to show off the Wasp Factory Website. The site, featuring a batch of programme biographies only partially enlivened by a few neat if pointless chunks of computer animation, shows similar characteristics to Malcolm Sutherland's latest production of his own stage adaptation of Iain Banks's first novel: it deploys flash technology and visual frippery primarily because it can.

The show's other main selling point is, of course, Banks's name and cachet, which in turn leads to a dual perspective in reviewing: Sutherland's production works nicely as a piece of contemporary theatre, give or take the odd excess the drum'n'bass dance scene, aerialist and tumblers are all more than a little gratuitous but is inevitably on shakier ground when compared to the original novel. It is, of course, unstageable in anything approaching a "pure" reproduction: young Frank's exploits upon his family's island in the Moray Firth, blowing up rabbits and dispatching an infant cousin into the stratosphere lashed to a giant kite, can hardly be realistically represented the rabbit, for instance, is played by one of the company acrobats and later replaced (for the explosion) by a huge cuddly toy. Where horror and sick humour co-exist in Banks's prose, Sutherland oscillates between them; he seems to be aiming for an atmosphere similar to those of Philip Ridley's plays, although Ridley too succeeds in commingling such elements rather than cycling rapidly between them.

Having felt compelled sometimes rightly, on other occasions mistakenly to render more explicitly Frank's path towards his family's central secret, Sutherland attempts to relocate the allusiveness of the book in images on a series of video monitors which frame the stage. This is most successful during Frank's description of the Wasp Factory itself, his home-made torture machine; at other moments its screening of the same quick-cut montages supply the merest additional texture, and simply offer an alternative vision to the static spotlit Frank on the stage. The family anecdotes and telephone conversations of the book mean that much of its content is told rather than shown in this adaptation; whilst the flashbacks to Frank's homicidal youth can be played out, during other sequences the spectator's eye must simply be seduced by other goings-on. Robert Innes Hopkins's design, with its traps, flown-in furniture and those video screens, helps fill the bill in style.

Frank is played by four actors: one for youth, one for the final moments (which, coming over as they do much more clumsily on the stage than on the page, could comfortably be excised altogether) and two (Martin Freeman and Tom Smith) in tandem for the bulk of the action; despite their assured teamwork it seems at times, with their twin Scottish burrs and National Health glasses, that the protagonist of the play is in fact The Proclaimers. As Father, with his erratic limp at moments of dramatic convenience, David Gant adds an air of Mervyn Peake to the proceedings. For all its weaknesses and pitfalls, though, The Wasp Factory plainly succeeds in drawing new young blood into the Playhouse's audience, and can only be applauded for doing so.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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