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Theatre Review: Jekyll & Hyde, Southwark Playhouse

30/09/2013 14:52 BST | Updated 29/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Another transfer from the Edinburgh Festival arrives in London. However, unlike Fleabag which had a run at Soho Theatre, I cannot fathom how this interpretation of the classic novel by Robert Louis Stevenson received strongly positive reviews at the Fringe.

The production certainly promises a lot and works hard to keep the mood in line with the original story. In this retelling, in the dim light of the stage, the scary tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is told by an intriguing but mysterious man, St. John, who is trying to sell the only manuscript of this dreadful tale to a newspaper editor, Worsfield. As the thrilling story unfolds, its dramatic parts are played out in front of them by the rest of the cast.

Certainly the set design (Joanna Scotcher) is very impressive. In a restricted space, her use of a large frosted glass backdrop to evoke both houses looking out onto cobbled streets, as well as the windows of smoky, sinister interiors is superb.

The acting talent in the supporting cast is also excellent. And the mood of the setting is certainly enhanced by their whiteface makeup, lending the production the feel of a grotesque cabaret.

The introduction sets the production up well - it's dark, gothic and full of intrigue and suspense. Yet sadly the rest of this show does not deliver on this strong start.

The decision to cast Jekyll/Hyde as a woman is key to the problems in this production, especially given that this interpretation is the USP for this show.

The producers claim that this fresh approach to the casting of Dr Jekyll challenges gender politics. It's an interesting premise but for me this backfires spectacularly and ends up doing nothing of the sort. It's telegraphed throughout this short play that the Jekyll/Hyde split is the result of the female Dr Jekyll battling to contain her aggressive, masculine alter-ego - Mr Hyde.

How is it challenging gender stereotypes by having the violent Hyde as the male part of the split identity and the calm but sharp Dr Jekyll as the female? This allocation of character traits actually just reinforces stereotypes of gender and behaviour.

It would have been far more ground-breaking to have the roles reversed and the murderous violence of Hyde being committed by a woman rather than a man. That would be a genuine challenge to our assumptions on female characteristics.

Furthermore, the capacity of this female Dr Jekyll is reduced by insisting that her hold over her victims is the result of sexual magnetism, more so than intellectual superiority. Why can't a female Dr Jekyll manipulate a man without resorting to sexual bargaining?

The issue isn't helped by the casting either. Though Cristina Catalina impresses as the angry Hyde, she is less convincing as the manipulative Dr Jekyll. Rather than alluring and mysterious, her Dr Jekyll is cool and aloof. As a result, the sexual hold she is supposed to exert over others isn't convincing.

The issue of gender politics is not the only concern I have with this production. At just over an hour long, this production should be snappy, exciting and exhilarating. This is after all a story of suspense and violence. Instead, after a strong start, the play loses its pace and starts to become weighed down with clunky dialogue and too much exposition. This is a surprise given that the play was written by Jonathan Holloway, a playwright of immense talent.

As a result, though Jekyll & Hyde has promise, I feel the final result is an example of good ideas not being fully realised in execution.

Southwark Playhouse, London

To October 19, 2013