Though it has been smartly programmed to coincide with Halloween, Let the Right One In is not the fright-fest that its poster might have you believe. There is certainly a chill that pervades Bryony Shanahan’s production, but this stage version of Jon Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and film – adapted by Jack Thorne – is more bittersweet than scary. It eschews easy shocks in favour of something much more moving.
Adolescence is the real horror-show in this story of friendship and connection. Shanahan captures with gut-churning accuracy the terror of bullying and humiliation – a daily experience for teenaged Oskar. He is less worried about the murders taking place in the woods than he is about protecting himself from his schoolyard tormentors. Then he meets Eli, the enigmatic new nextdoor neighbour who only comes out at night. The pair of outcasts quickly strike up a friendship, but it could all fall apart if Oskar discovers who and what Eli really is.
Thorne’s script – working from both Lindqvist’s novel and the 2008 film – focuses closely on Oskar and Eli and their compelling bond. As played by Pete MacHale, Oskar has the vulnerability and unpredictability of a wounded animal. He radiates pain and loneliness, yet there’s also an edge to him – a sliver of something dangerous. Rhian Blundell’s Eli, meanwhile, is a slippery, otherworldly creature. The way Blundell moves across the stage is extraordinary: one moment leaping with supernatural grace, the next shuffling with the shy awkwardness of a teenager.
Though the production is not explicitly set in Lindqvist’s native Sweden, there’s a Scandinavian coolness to Amelia Jane Hankin’s design. With just a few clever lighting tricks, its pale blue and grey tiles transform from school gym to playground, from frozen lake to swimming pool. As one of the Royal Exchange’s artistic directors, Shanahan knows how to get the most out of this tricky space, using the auditorium’s multiple levels to heighten the escalating drama.
For horror fans, there are a few genuine scares. But at its heart this is a tenderly told tale of growing up, forming friendships and facing the darkness of the world.