Roamin’ in the haemoglobin: Let the Right One In at the Royal Court Theatre

Having already appeared as both Swedish and American film versions, this vampire story is coming to the stage.

Let the Right One In
Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

For those who like vampire stories, there have been plenty to choose from in the past decade or so. From the wise-cracking brilliance of of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the slightly more dubious charms of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, night-loving bloodsuckers have dominated popular culture, reincarnated as gossipy cheerleaders, celibacy-loving teenagers and occasionally even something quite frightening. One of the most original versions of the legend, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let the Right One In, has now been adapted for the stage, having already appeared as both Swedish and American film versions.

All three adaptations remain more or less true to Lindqvist’s original plot: a young boy (Swedish in the novel and first film, American in the second, and now Scottish in the play) from a broken home befriends the girl who moves next door. She turns out to be an ancient vampire child, and yet their connection deepens and burgeons as they cope with school bullies, interfering parents, and murder investigations.

Both films relied heavily on the use of remote locations and long tracking shots to suggest the fatalistic, languid pace of the story and the essential strangeness of its central relationship. The National Theatre of Scotland has taken the bold step of trying to translate this to the stage.

This production is more than just an attempt to recreate what was a successful film and book: Jack Thorne’s adaptation turns Lindqvist’s story into an original piece of theatre that is by turns unsettling, horrifying and even occasionally funny. It is also extremely physical. In the opening murder, a walker is strung up by his ankles to be “bled”, like a pig being slaughtered; later on, one of the central characters is nearly drowned in a tank of water – an astonishing and terrifying feat of breath control from the actor.

A haunting, pulsing soundtrack by the Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds heightens the suspenseful atmosphere, although some of the accompanying movement sequences that are threaded between the dialogue are less successful. One, which looks something like scary tree-hugging combined with tai chi, is unintentionally comical and contrasts unfavourably with some of the other, more effective choreography.

All the action takes place among the (real) trees that make up most of the set, with the odd piece of furniture rolling in as required. Actors clamber in the branches at will, and the spaces in between are strewn with fake snow, suggesting a beautiful, sinister wintry landscape. It is here, while practising by threatening a nearby tree with a knife, that the young Oskar (Martin Quinn) first meets Eli. Played by Rebecca Benson with astonishing grace and precision of movement, Eli is the vampire child around whom all the action revolves.

Benson’s performance is riveting – she manages to convey Eli’s stilted, archaic mode of speech and jerky mannerisms without resorting to over-acting. The elements of vampire lore that Lindqvist honours – Eli burns in natural light, must drink blood to survive and cannot feel the cold – are woven cleverly into the physicality of her performance rather than requiring clumsy exposition. The most crucial of these is that while Eli is able to enter a dwelling uninvited, doing so will cause her to bleed through her skin until an invitation is extended.

Let the Right One In is gory in places, as you’d expect especially some of the bullying scenes verge. There are a few moments of genuine jump-in-your-seat shock when Eli attacks those who threaten her friendship with Oskar, but there is a far more insidious kind of horror emanating from her relationship with Hakan (Ewan Stewart), a much older man who occupies an ambivalent, unsettling role. So absorbing is this interplay that you are drawn into the ethics of Eli’s existence – she tries to avoid taking life but encourages Hakan to provide her with blood via the grisly murders he carries out in the forest.

The haunted, obsessive look in his eyes emphasises that although this is a vampire tale, it is principally a love story. Yet the words Eli speaks as she tries to tell Oskar what she really is will have you shivering long after you leave the theatre: “I’m not that. I live on blood. But I am not . . . that . . . Can I come in?” 

Rebecca Benson as Eli in Let the Right One In

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.