You can always rely on the Chocolate Factory to come up with something a little different for Christmas. This year they light on the toothsome prospect of a show with an incorporeal protagonist: the Invisible Man of the title. The theatre stages Ken Hill’s amiable 1991 stage adaptation of HG Wells’ science-fiction account of strange goings-on in a Sussex village. But though it is all quite jolly and the illusions can be ingenious, it’s surprisingly hard work: it doesn’t have the fizz factor of some of its predecessors.
Hill’s adaptation puts Wells’ creation together with the Edwardian enthusiasm for magic tricks to come up with a music hall treatment, in which we, as a 1904 audience, watch a deliberately ropey dramatic reconstruction of the spooky events in Iping. This spoof approach makes for plenty of corny jokes and a fair amount of slapstick, as befits a Christmas show. Ian Talbot’s good-natured production revels in the nonsense, getting the cast to create their own effects (a handful of snow and a pained expression – a blizzard).
Their story runs thus. A mysterious stranger (John Gordon Sinclair) wrapped in bandages arrives in the village and takes up residence at the local inn, to the discomfort of all the villagers: the buxom landlady (Maria Friedman), ditsy maid (Natalie Casey), clumsy copper (Teddy Kempner), local squire (Jo Stone-Fewings) and forceful Scottish schoolteacher (Geraldine Fitzgerald).
The newcomer eschews company and has strange chemicals delivered to his room. Not only that, but objects begin to go bump in the night, moved by an invisible force. It’s when the villagers realise the stranger and the unseen phantom are one and the same the production hits one of its climaxes, as the visitor unpeels his bandages to reveal an eerie space.
Paul Kieve’s magic comes into its own here and the illusionist provides many delightful tricks, as knives and pistols are brandished, books flung, drawers rifled through and cigarettes smoked – all by forces unseen. But even so, the show, like the menacing stranger, outstays its welcome. There are only so many brawls with an invisible opponent you can enjoy, and the daft antics and chirpy tone begin to wear thin. You feel, too, that you are missing the darker elements of the story. Plenty of spills, then, but a little too light on the chills and thrills. ()