For a novel less than 20 years old, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let he Right One In has spawned enough adaptations that its title now doubles as a guide: be careful, for not all versions of this Swedish horror romance are created equal.
The essential adaptation is the 2008 Swedish film, which introduced the wider world to the romance between Oskar, a lonely, bullied 12-year-old, and his new neighbour Eli, a centuries-old vampire in the body of a pre-teen girl.
Written by Lindqvist and directed by the film-maker Tomas Alfredson, it’s an eerie, tender watch, where love and murder are committed to warm the soul against the relentless Stockholm frost: the late film critic Roger Ebert lauded it as “the best modern vampire movie”. Then there’s the remarkably reductive 2010 US remake, Let Me In; two separate play scripts; a comic prequel series denounced by Lindqvist; and, this year, a Showtime television series.
But Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production is among the right ones, a faithful adaptation (using Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne’s script) that is charming and disturbing in equal measure. It centres in on a cold truth: mutual loneliness is a dark, dangerous footing for love, but sometimes that is the best that we can find.
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Will McDonald, a highlight of Netflix’s Heartbreak High reboot as eshay Ca$H, leads as Oskar, with a surprisingly robust Swedish accent, as the adaptation doesn’t risk breaking the spell of its setting – even if not all of the eight-person cast can maintain the accent through the more than two-hour-long play. (It works more often than it doesn’t, though accidental veers into US or Slavic accents from the ensemble may distract some.) Newcomer Sebrina Thornton-Walker plays Eli, who prefers to not kill: instead, they have an arrangement with their familiar Håkan (Stephen Anderton), a middle-aged man who drugs then collects the blood of unsuspecting victims.
While innocent Swedes die, Eli and Oskar meet at night outside their apartment block in a delightfully awkward courtship. McDonald and Thornton-Walker, friends for years, have a chemistry that carries them through what could, with other actors, be the play’s biggest problem: twentysomethings playing pre-teens. Thornton-Walker’s modelesque stature befits Eli being centuries old while looking young, but McDonald has the real challenge. Oskar, in the film adaptations, was played by slightly unnerving child actors (Kåre Hedebrant, Kodi Smit-McPhee). But 24-year-old McDonald is up to the task, his rounded shoulders, gangly body and uncontrolled expressions are painfully recognisable, without being a caricature of a sullen pre-teen. If anything, the awkwardness of a grown man gleefully eating lollies or playing in a sandlot only exaggerates how alienated Oskar is, and how easy it could be for him to become a proto-incel before meeting Eli.
And by casting Thornton-Walker, a trans woman, as Eli, the production stretches out the queer-as-in-strange allegory of their connection, previously only hinted at in other adaptations by Eli’s insistence that they are neither girl, boy or vampire, just Eli. These two characters find connection in shared weirdness and a capacity for great violence – but is it a survival tactic or an irresistible, monstrous desire?
The director, Alexander Berlage, contrasts McDonald and Thornton-Walker’s tender chemistry with a cold backdrop. The cast’s breath fogs up on stage, a visual trick that makes quite a few audience members use their coats as blankets, despite the Playhouse’s perfectly regulated temperature.
Harking back to the rotating stage he used in American Psycho, Berlage leans on set design to create tone. Violence looms long before Eli and Håkan arrive thanks to Isabel Hudson rendering the unnamed Swedish town – from the snowcapped woods to Eli’s sun-shielded apartment – as an industrial meatworks facility, complete with a small, windowed office space where much of the brutality occurs. Claustrophobic compared with the rest of the open stage, it’s a site where Oskar’s bullies Micke (Callan Colley) and Jonny (Eddie Orton) continually corner him, leaving little space for McDonald to breathe, let alone escape. Even the audio is stifling, as dialogue from the room is rerouted through speakers rather than coming directly from the actors, intentionally tinny and distant. At moments, the play is more terrifying than Alfredson’s film, especially in scenes where McDonald’s body is seemingly put under duress, with the theatre tricks not immediately obvious.
The composer, James Peter Brown, and the sound designer, Daniel Herten, are behind much of the play’s tension and horror. Splashes of blood are accompanied by thrashing industrial techno and strobing lights, a jolt alongside the spacious, twinkling synths used to score Eli and Oskar’s gentle courtship. The deaths are wonderfully shocking but the true chills are in what people will do to feel a connection, whether that be Micke and Jonny bonding by relentlessly bullying Oskar, a familiar betraying their fellow humans, or a lonely boy falling in love with a vampire.
Let the Right One In is at the Eternity Playhouse until 20 November