Young Frankenstein

Yes, it’s funny and I laughed. But I felt beaten into submission by a raucous first night crowd and a relentless succession of bad, old gags. It was the sexism that struck the false notes, particularly while the world was buzzing from the Harvey Weinstein scandal – bad timing is ruinous to good comedy, and it nearly sinks this.

The humour and the old jokes have been re-animated for the purpose of Mel Brooks’ West End resuscitation of his own mild Broadway success of a few years ago, in turn a version of his 1974 comedy film, but with added show tunes.

It’s a pastiche of a pastiche of a spoof, lumbering like Frankenstein’s monster and his constituent parts, but also winning most people over with brio and gusto. By the end, they really drag this dead horse over the line.

Hadley Fraser is charming and energetic as New York anatomy professor Frederick Frankenstein, so ashamed of his grandfather Victor’s fabled experiments that he insists on the family name being pronounced Fronkensteen. 

Fraser ably channels Gene Wilder but just misses the fragile mania and precision timing of Gene’s delivery. However, Frankenstein’s past returns to haunt him and he has to travel back to Transylvania to settle up inheritance affairs. There, he is soon lured into repeating the old experiments at the behest of hobbledy-hoi manservant Igor (that’s pronounced “eye-gore”) and pinched house keeper Frau Blucher – a running gag has horses whinnying with fear every time that name is pronounced.

Igor is gamely played by Ross Noble in a cockney accent as a nod to Marty Feldman, I think. Noble does well and will need serious osteopathy after this run for all the contortions of his body. Lesley Joseph, in the Cloris Leachman role, ratchets up all her panto experience to wring laughs out of Frau Blucher, but the played-for-laughs ‘domestic abuse’ ode He Vas My Boyfriend, about her love for the cruel Victor Frankenstein, really made me wince.

So too the part of Inga, the classic Brooksian blonde bombshell – it was Teri Garr in the movie, here played by Summer Strahlen, and now the victim of the gags about the castle door’s huge knockers (“Ooh thank you Doctor!”) and the constant knicker-flashing in her choreography as the Doctor’s assistant (“Assistant? Is that what they call them nowadays?” and, later, “Looks like she’s assisting his brains out…”) – all of this stuff surely comes from another time and jars horridly in this post-Weinstein era. Or should that be Waynestone?

I can’t fault the dexterity of some of Mel’s lyrics: “If your genitalia’s been known to fail ya, ya can betcha ass on the brain…!” nor the customary wit of Susan Stroman’s choreography and staging. But the gags about the monster’s “schwanzstuck” excusing a practical sexual assault on the doctor’s previously prudish fiancee Elisabeth (she’s no Madeline Kahn, but is nevertheless impressively warbled by Dianne Pilkington) had me shifting uncomfortably. 

I was waiting for it all to end, a rictus grin plastered on my face, my brain waiting for the switch to be pulled and transferred back outside the hysteria pit of the Garrick theatre.

The first half moves at a clip. With its revolving bookcase comic business and ‘walk this way’ gags, it is far better than the second half, although if you left at the interval you’d miss the show-stopping Puttin’ on the Ritz number, which is probably the highlight of the evening. The crowd also really liked the blind hermit scene (song: Someone), with the chicken soup spilled over the poor Monster, and the cigar lighting routine. It’s only so-so. 

You can’t put cinema spoofs on the stage. Any visual jokes about expressionist lighting or sight gags become broad and clumsy, no mater how much you wink about them. The Producers had a more natural fit in adapting to musical theatre – and conversely suffered when it was then made back into a film musical.

As I said right off, I did laugh at Young Frankenstein. I always have done. But here it was resigned chuckling, mainly at the brazen disinterring of long-buried gags, zany zombies of jokes you could see limping in from miles away. I didn’t come out humming the new tunes – apart from doing Puttin on the Ritz in the monster’s lobotomised grunts – and I still have respect for 91-year-old Mel Brooks’ vaudeville/Borscht Belt schtick, in the way I still love my dead Grandpa. 

Look, I love an old gag – and my Dad will love this – but when they’re still doing material about Dolores del Rio’s breasts, it’s surely time for some old monsters to let things lie.

© Manuel Harlan – featured image 

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