Review: ‘Let The Right One In’ – The Stage Adaptation

At first glance, Let the Right One In does not sound like it would lend itself to the stage. The story takes place in various locales including two apartments, a courtyard with jungle gym, a boy’s locker room and school swimming pool. How could a stage production handle such sets and make it work? This bit of skepticism was felt by myself and several area film critics who attended the play at Houston’s Alley Theatre.

There’s a bit of trickery involved with taking what is primarily a visual work (Let the Right One In, while based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, is mostly regarded for its two movie translations – one in Swedish, the other in English) and applying it to the world of theatre. It is also a two-way street. Interpreting a play as a film has its own set of limitations, particularly when trying to expand the breadth of the story with cinematic flourishes. Rarely has the transition been faultless.

While I spend more time in movie theaters than attending the theatre, I marveled at what the National Theatre of Scotland accomplished with its stage adaptation of Let the Right One In. The audience sat in hushed silence, eyes wide, watching the story unfold in splendid fashion. That’s a credit to Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, who wrote and directed the production. More recently, they collaborated again, this time with J.K. Rowling, in London’s heralded West End for a stage play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Most assuredly, the wizard marked with a scar was in good hands with these two.

Forgoing a straightforward narrative, Thorne reworks the material while still retaining the emotional resonance that Lindqvist first instilled when the novel was published more than a decade ago. The primary set dressing is a snowy courtyard with leafless trees standing erect around the stage and a jungle gym. When a sofa or set of lockers is wheeled in, the movement is both dexterous and ingenious in its design. At one moment we see the two leading stars, Oskar (Cristian Ortega) and Eli (Lucy Mangan), sharing an intimate conversation in the courtyard and the next moment we are in Oskar’s bedroom. The transitions are never jarring, again a credit to Tiffany’s direction.

Those unfamiliar with the book or the film interpretations of Let the Right One In, the stage production may be shocking. The subject matter is blood-curdling and disconcerting, especially in the later stages. The first half carries a certain stillness with momentary surges of violence, enhanced greatly by Ólafur Arnalds and Gareth Fry’s brilliant score and sound design.

The cast consists of nine actors, three of whom appear in multiple roles, but for all intents and purposes the story belongs to Eli and Oskar. Oskar gets pushed around by kids in school and Eli is an androgynous teen unsure about the world, about people. The kinship they share is lovely and strange, and universal in its themes. Both Mangan and Ortega are great in their roles, able to channel that awkwardness that comes with being picked on or misunderstood.

Let the Right One In is bloody beautiful in all the right ways. It’s also scary at times. The second act has two legit jump-out-of-your-seat moments of fright that gave us seasoned film critics a jolt. But that’s the magic of live theatre, I guess; the ability to put on a show and make an audience awestruck.

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