Theatre review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Leith Theatre

Henry Pettigrew and Lorn Macdonald in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Picture: Henry HomeHenry Pettigrew and Lorn Macdonald in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Picture: Henry Home
Henry Pettigrew and Lorn Macdonald in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Picture: Henry Home
The National Theatre of Scotland’s part-film, part-theatre reimagining of Stevenson’s classic doesn’t quite come off, but it’s still a fascinating experiment, writes Joyce McMillan

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Leith Theatre, Edinburgh ****

What a strange and fascinating event this new version of Robert Louis Stevenson great 1886 novella is, co-produced in the vast spaces of Leith Theatre by the National Theatre of Scotland and the film company Selkie Productions.

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Billed as a hybrid between theatre and film, which sets out – like Stevenson’s story itself – to explore the idea of duality, the show feels almost like the theatrical equivalent of being plunged for several hours into Dr Jekyll’s sinister laboratory. An experiment is under way, and in many ways it looks like a failure; yet the unfolding of it is so rich in detail and full of incident that the experience is irresistible to the end.

The show fails to convince in at least three important ways and the first is in the looming presence of Leith Theatre itself, a huge municipal building with Art Deco influences completed in 1929. Its mood and architecture is therefore very poorly aligned with the atmosphere of Stevenson’s story, a creature of the elegant Georgian drawing rooms and stinking vennels of Edinburgh’s new and old towns; and the sheer scale of the theatre building requires many of the sets to be built as closed boxes within larger spaces.

Then there is the script, by the project’s director Hope Dickson Leach and writer Vlad Butucea; a vastly ambitious affair that extends Stevenson’s story into a meditation about the brutality of early capitalism, played out in a city of breweries and slums that also called itself the Athens Of The North. To this end, it rewrites the history of Scotland’s National Monument on Calton Hill, and transforms Stevenson’s story into a tragedy based around the character of Jekyll’s friend Utterson, finally reduced by his own ambition to something little better than the horrifying Hyde. The writing, sometimes a shade flat-footed, often seems not quite up to the scale of the job it has set itself.

And then finally, there is the attempt at hybridity, which eventually crumbles completely, as the demands of the film – watched by the headphone-wearing live audience on a big screen at Leith Theatre, as the action takes shape in the closed spaces around them – completely trump those of live performance. The roar of applause as the actors take their bows at the end of the show is heartwarming, but for most of us, it is the first glimpse we have had of any of them in the flesh.

On the upside, though – well, Leith Theatre is an irresistible and haunting space, even if sits uneasily on this particular story. The ambition of the storytelling – embodied in a slightly startled-looking performance by Lorn Macdonald as Utterson – is risky and thrilling, an attempt, albeit imperfect, at a major reimagining of a vital text.

And above all, the flair and brilliance of the 13-strong acting company – for whom this really is a hybrid project, requiring the delivery of a 120-minute film drama in real time – is simply dazzling. Alongside Macdonald, Henry Pettigrew makes a superb Jekyll, understated, complex – and yet straightforwardly terrifying as Hyde. And with stars including David Hayman, Tam Dean Burn, Alison Peebles and Caroline Deyga offering unforgettable cameos in supporting roles, the live experience comes across as something like a partly-controlled chemical explosion: messy, inconclusive, and even with the odd moment of boredom – but also full of strange and intriguing new shapes and textures.

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Film version streamed across the UK on 27 February, with additional screenings at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 4-5 March, and at the Scotsman Hotel Picture House, Edinburgh, 24 March. Details at

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