First published in The Times, Monday February 7 2022
Anna Girvan’s production for Northern Stage features a protagonist named Griffin, a character called Herbert George and another with a bandaged face, but the nods to HG Wells and his science fiction classic end there. The 1897 novella is only a jumping-off point for a contemporary meditation on social invisibility in its various forms.
In Philip Correia’s script, Griffin (played with disarming intensity by Daniel Watson) is a young man with a traumatic background, whose claims to have discovered the power of invisibility have landed him in a psychiatric hospital. Approaching his 18th birthday and facing transfer to an adult facility, Griffin is referred to Dr Sara Kemp (Kate Louise Okello), a psychotherapist and minor celebrity with a spot on a local radio phone-in show who turns out to be something of a lost soul herself.
The drama hinges on the question of whether Griffin is merely disturbed or whether there is substance to his claims. Inevitably Sara is intrigued enough to dig deeper. Their increasingly heated sessions are the most compelling element of Girvan’s production, built on shifting dynamics between the characters. The illiterate Griffin has slipped through society’s cracks; he has felt unseen all his life. Sara, who is of mixed African and English heritage, feels physically conspicuous but is rendered anonymous and one-dimensional by prejudice. In this vein Correia’s script recalls a different literary Invisible Man: the 1952 Ralph Ellison novel, in which the African-American narrator tries to explain his lifelong sense of social invisibility.
The four members of the cast, which also includes Jack Fairley and Izzy Ions in a variety of supporting roles, are dynamic and versatile, even if they sometimes get bogged down in a production that feels cluttered, in terms of Aileen Kelly’s naturalistic set and Correia’s script, at times too on the nose in his characters’ exposition of the play’s themes. A subplot depicting Griffin’s revenge on the various types who failed his family — vicar, teacher, reporter — is tonally uncertain, veering between melodrama and playing for laughs.
On the plus side the uninflected realism of the staging clashes nicely at various points with the heightened atmospherics, notably the use of foley sound effects, designed by the composer Jeremy Bradfield and created live on stage by the cast. There are some decidedly eerie and unsettling sequences here. They would be even more powerful in a more dramatically focused production.
To February 19, then touring to March 26, northernstage.co.uk