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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.

Rebecca Benson as Eli in Let the Right One In
Rebecca Benson as Eli in Let the Right One In

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?”