All That Remains: The Invisible Man

If you had the power of invisibility, what would you do?

What about if you were already rendered invisible by society? Worn down and diminished over the years, how driven would you be—and how far would you go—to become the very thing society fears: truly invisible and without boundaries?

Following the sell-out success of their previous H. G. Wells adaptation, The War of the Worlds, Northern Stage transforms one of the most iconic characters in horror fiction from an optics-devoted scientist into a frustrated and belittled young man from the North East.

Sharing more than just the name Griffin with his literary predecessor, this invisible man is similarly troubled, consumed by his work and racked with violent thoughts. Disbelieved by most and openly derided by others, Griffin’s abilities have landed him in care. After all, an ordinary, ill-educated kid like him couldn’t just invent invisibility. As Griffin continues his work, danger looms if therapist Dr Sara Kemp can’t convince the unstable young man to tell the truth.

a genuinely intimidating presence

Daniel Watson (Give Them Wings, Isolation, The Terminal Velocity Of Snowflakes, Byker Grove) is a stage-swallowing presence as Griifin, seething and broiling like those mad scientist beakers from films of old, full of chemicals and ready to explode. A genuinely intimidating presence, Watson never loses our sympathy. Bounced around, ignored, and finally trapped by the tendrils of the state, his anger is relatable, and his actions (though never justified) are understandable.

Whereas 2020’s Elisabeth Moss-starring film adaptation used the idea of men rendered invisible through disbelief in the testimony of the woman they abuse, this new take uses the ‘white working-class boys left behind’ narrative as a hook to probe who is invisible in UK society. Alienation and abandonment permeate the character of this invisible man.

Betrayed by the education system, Griffin takes learning into his own hands. Echoing the invisible man of the original novel, his research causes a cat to suffer and die horribly. Though fundamentally no different from the routine animal experimentation conducted by the scientific establishment, Griffin’s inability to access this elite world means his work is met with horror, not funding.

a bleak and inescapable cycle of violence and misery

Kate Louise Okello (Breathing Space, Skellig, Stan & Ollie, Home Front) as Dr Sara Kemp, Griffin’s therapist, does solid work with an unlikable character. Hailing from the same run-down nothing town as Griffin, she is his counterpoint, escaping while he was left behind. However, while this class traitor turned social media pop-therapist is ostensibly on Griffin’s side, revelations of cronyism and privilege soon rear their head, and we’re left unsure—even up to the final moment—whether she may have been grooming him to steal his secrets.

Jack Farley (The Tempest, Finding Uhuru) and Izzv lons (The Snow Queen ) are outstanding value as a gamut of local characters haunted, hunted, and harmed by the invisible man, often continuing the theme of societal invisibility. Marginalised by those ‘above’ them, we see their characters compelled to pass on the harm to those they have been led to believe are ‘below’ them, perpetuating a bleak and inescapable cycle of violence and misery.

Director Anna Girvan works with a limited setting, using sound (particularly the on-stage use of props to reproduce everyday sound effects in real-time) to paint a picture while choosing, interestingly or frustratingly depending on your taste, to limit the visual antics. Save for some poltergeist-esque action midway, this is very much the tale of a visible man.

hemes of exploitation, identity, establishment power, and corruption

While the choice to steer clear of portraying invisibility on stage lends itself to the running question of whether Griffin has discovered the secret or is delusional, those familiar with more visual adaptations of the tale may come away disappointed by the decision to sidestep special effects in favour of a more theatre of the mind approach. In a cute touch, however, while there is no iconic bandage-unwrapping moment, the classic trenchcoat-and-fedora-clad Invisible Man does make a masterfully handwaved-away appearance.

Writer Philip Correia hails from the North East, and his familiarity with the region comes through in realistically-sketched local characters and a feeling of abandonment, of places left behind and diminished by those who couldn’t find them on a map.

The concept of systemic invisibility is an interesting—and current—hook to hang a fresh take on the Invisible Man. Yet, the scant running time and a lack of focus hamper the production from being truly successful. While the production touts itself as ‘exploring themes of exploitation, identity, establishment power, and corruption’, this exploration too often comes in the form of throwaway lines and undeveloped ideas.

Rather than mining these rich seams alongside and as counterpoints to the central ‘white working-class boys left behind’ idea, themes that speak to the experience of being invisible in the UK in 2022 feel either fumbled or forgotten. Notably, Kemp’s personal experience of invisibility through her mixed-race heritage is brought into play only to remain unexplored.

Ultimately, The Invisible Man teases both a vivified working-class sci-fi horror and a cerebral exploration of societal structures and assumptions, yet never fully commits to either. The production bubbles and seethes like its central character, unsure of what it wants to be.

A taught and bleak little sci-fi horror swimming in the psychogeography of the North East, the solid performances, captivating sonic production and bounty of searing ideas are an evocative mix, threatening throughout to boil over then evaporating away. If anything, the play, like Griffin, is a victim of its own ambition.

The Invisible Man is playing at Northern Stage until 31st December 2021.

Leigh Venus

Complimentary tickets provided by Northern Stage

Photos: Pamela Raith