What with all those gouts of gore, it’s a wonder that none of them ever seem to stain the snow onstage. The fluffy white layer underfoot is about the only seasonal element not refracted, subverted and darkened in the Royal Court’s anti-Christmas presentation this year. Instead of a deathless baby boy in a manger indicated by a star, we have an undead adolescent girl who sleeps in a trunk to avoid sunlight. This adaptation from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and screenplay was an unlikely summer hit for the National Theatre of Scotland, and it now follows its director John Tiffany down from NTS to the Royal Court.
Jack Thorne is strong on writing about adolescence, and his TV series The Fades showed that he could combine this with modern horror, so he is a natural fit as adapter here. The stage casting inevitably loses that extra cusp-of-puberty oddness palpable in both the Swedish and Hollywood film versions, but Martin Quinn as the bullied outcast Oskar and especially Rebecca Benson as the unnatural Eli create an atmosphere of their own. Christine Jones’ set mixes a silver birch wood with a climbing frame (which becomes a water-filled swimming pool for the climactic scene), Ólafur Arnalds’ ambient score is like slow-motion gusts of unearthly wind, and even Steven Hoggett’s movement sequences shake off any air of over-familiarity and cannily articulate some of the more abstract aspects of the tale.
For Tiffany and Thorne’s version keeps a tight focus on the personal dimension. There is scarcely any sense of period (Lindqvist set the story in the Sweden of 1981), or of social or economic elements. This is about Oskar and Eli, the bond that grows between them and the reasons for that closeness in the deficiencies of their respective relationships with the adults around them.
Eli’s “minder”, biologically older but chronologically much younger, commits serial murders for the blood she lives on but harbours a despairing romantic love for her; Oskar’s mother is emotionally over-demanding, and his teacher fails to spot or to act on the bullying that is a daily feature of Oskar’s school life. This leaves the two of them as the only available right ones for each other. Hardly peace and goodwill to all men, but this kind of devotion and self-sacrifice is not a million miles away from the usual Christmas message.