Trips into London remind me of 1970s Quatermass these days, but if there’s one thing I miss about living there, it’s the theatre scene. Sure, north-east England tries its best, but the bright lights of Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham simply can’t compete. So when I heard that a stage version of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein was being tested out at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, prior to a run in the West End, my heart leapt.
The original 1974 film has a place in my top 10 and is my favourite big-screen comedy, I guess. I’ve watched it more times than I care to say, which may have lessened my enjoyment of the musical I saw last week, since, unlike many in the packed house, I could anticipate most of the jokes. Still, I mustn’t grumble. Young Frankenstein captures everything that made the movie great – which, deprived of the talents of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn et al, is quite an achievement.
It was only after leaving the Thursday matinee, the sound of the standing ovation still ringing in my ears, that I realised I’d been watching a re-engineered flop. Reading a New York Post story online, I learned that the 2007 Broadway version – a follow-up to Brooks’ triumphant live show of The Producers – had gone down badly, lost millions and gnawed away at the legendary director ever since. Basing himself in London, then Newcastle for a month, the 91-year-old gave the show a spring clean and cut it from three hours to two. Tyneside loved it and, at one of the curtain calls this month, Brooks wondered out loud about bussing the adoring Geordie audience to London.
I’ve mentioned that I’m a devotee of the movie; therefore, in much the same way that someone who loves a novel will point out everything that’s missing in the film version, I was vaguely disappointed that certain lines didn’t make it into the auditorium. “Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania station?” is one. (I said that once in Brasov, Romania, to an American as we got off the bus from another city. Fortunately, he was in on the joke.)
Then there’s this gloriously un-PC exchange:
But hey, these are mere quibbles. The largely British cast is terrific, the songs are often laugh-out-loud funny, Shuler Hensley (the monster from Broadway) is a revelation and my goodness, it’s refreshing to hear old-fashioned, good-natured, politically incorrect jokes about Igor’s deformity, Frau Blucher the battleaxe, Inga’s nubile charms, Frederick Frankenstein’s lust for her, Inspector Kemp’s unfortunate disability, a blind hermit stumbling around his shack and Elizabeth’s coolness (verging on frigidity) towards her hapless fiance, young Frankenstein.
Speaking of which… I’ve always felt icky about the scene in the film in which – let’s be honest – the monster more or less rapes Elizabeth and she enjoys it, because he has “an enormous schwanzstucker”.
Does the stage show still go there? Well, yes, it does, and then follows up the gag with a song by Elizabeth called Deep Love. And I have to say, the audience laughed. Perhaps one day, Young Frankenstein will be banned for being ‘problematic’.