Yes, this is a vampire mystery. And no, this isn't Twilight. The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let the Right One In takes the stage at the Alley Theatre through March 19. Originally set in Sweden, Jack Thorne’s spellbinding adaptation of the bestselling novel takes place in chilly Scotland, mixing mystery, romance and drama with a punch of horror and unforgettable special effects. With shadowy sets replicating ominous woods, the trees that house terrifying events create a mysterious and romantic atmosphere that dovetails well with darker elements of the play.
Audiences don't need to be fluent in Vampirese or knowledgeable of supernatural folklore to follow the excruciating journey of Eli (Lucy Mangan), an angst-ridden vampire who is struggling to survive. But physical survival is only part of the equation—Eli’s emotional needs are also wanting. He meets Oskar (Cristian Ortega), a high school boy who is relentlessly bullied by his classmates and burdened by his mother’s drinking problem and father’s emotional distance, and the audience learns why these two characters connect: They are both struggling to survive, and their kindness provides a glimmer of relief to their stressful and tortured lives.
With brilliant lighting (Chahine Yavroyan) and moving music (Olafur Arnalds), this is a loud production that keeps the audience in a heightened state of suspense. The special effects are in the tradition of tragedy’s need for spectacle. While many of the scenes are shocking and horrifying, that seems a necessity for this hybridized story. The staging, ranging from violent acts in the liminal sphere of the forest to the most ordinary places, like living rooms and high school locker rooms, is superb. Adding in various special effects (Jeremy Chernick) is a reminder that horror, mystery and even the supernatural can still be performed on stage—no film crew necessary.
Like Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, this play humanizes vampires and makes them worthy of sympathy and even empathy, but not at the expense of sugarcoating their terrifying tendencies. It is not lost on the audience that the primal needs of vampires are not so far removed from humanity's darker actions that allow us to bully and reject others, a form of emotional vampirism that sucks its victims dry.
One of the most moving components of the play is Oskar’s admission that he would “go out with Eli even if she wasn’t a girl,” going far beyond political correctness and launching into a more profound definition of love. Instead of obsessing over a person’s physical identity, it dispenses with it almost entirely, making their spiritual connection take on a purity that seems surprising when juxtaposed with Eli’s violent hunger and loyalty. You might not think of horror as a particularly philosophical genre, but Let the Right One In shifts audience's gaze from the everyday to the supernatural in a way that makes those realms seem less removed from each other as the play progresses.
Audiences will marvel over Mangan’s physical embodiment as the vampire Eli, as her performance is literally and figuratively haunting. Filled with verve and guts, it is not devoid of the emotional dimensions that make a far-fetched plot seem, well, believable. Ortega as Oskar is outstanding, as his strange mix of vulnerability and innocence with humor and idealism is a perfect storm of sadness and hope. Few performers can capture the angst of a teenager without making the performance seem like a parody, and Ortega delivers in a splendid way that outshines even the most shocking vampire scenes (and that is really saying something).
This is a uniformly strong cast—even the bit parts leave an impression—and the decision to set this in Scotland is a laudable choice. There is something a little more guttural about hearing Scottish accents that makes the English language less Masterpiece Theatre; more honest and grittier, a perfect fit for the chilly winter scenes that surround vicious crimes, uncivilized betrayals and domestic tragedies. Only in this setting can Oskar’s mother use the word “hooligan” and hit the perfect comic and tragic notes. Only in this world could you have Jonny and Micke (Graeme Dalling and Andrew Fraser) torment the beleaguered Oskar with their profane insults hitting harder without the fussiness of an English accent or the anticlimactic force of American slang. With The National Theatre of Scotland, everything works, from the snow falling to the locker slamming, to the silent choreography of nameless characters walking, dancing, enduring—something, everything—in the woods like an eerie ballet that mimics the delicate negotiations that Eli and Oskar must manage in their lives.
Let the Right One In is not for the fainthearted. But this surprising mix of the terrific, horrific and romantic is a theatrical cocktail you won’t forget.
From $30. 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org