Let the Right One In at the Alley Terrifies and Enthralls at the Alley Theatre

Lucy Mangan as Eli
Lucy Mangan as Eli Photo by Lawrence Peart

I've never truly understood the appeal of vampires. Sure, I love the folklore and the Transylvanian backstory, even though Romania's Borgo Pass in reality looks nothing like the blasted, craggy heath from so many horror movies. I like the costume: Evening wear with opera cape looks mighty attractive on Bela Lugosi or Frank Langella. Being a night owl, I empathize with their love of the night. And there's that immortality question, which can mesmerize midnight beer parties for hours, but look at what you have to go through to achieve legendary status: sleep in a box of dirt, no suntan, no friends, and that whole messy business of eating. There's no substitute for human blood, so I'm told.

Campy (lounge lizard Lugosi), ghoulish (Max Schreck's rodent visage in Fritz Lang's silent classic Nosferatu [1922] is ghoul personified) or angst-filled (Robert Pattinson's glittery millennial in Twilight), vampires leave me cold.

Except, I heartily admit, my blood racing, for this new gal in town, who 's quite the thing. So is the play that immortalizes her: the National Theatre of Scotland's terrifying, and utterly enthralling, Let the Right One In, now haunting the Alley.

The creature appears, quite literally, atop a jungle gym in the middle of a birch forest on the outskirts of Stockholm. She is Eli (Lucy Mangan), and she's pale as moonlight and just as elusive. A tad rumpled with a bad case of bed hair, she seems to be your typical goth teen, except that it's winter and she wears no coat or shoes, only T-shirt and jeans. (Later, the Kiss logo on her sweatshirt is ironically apt.) She also smells like a wet dog or a festering wound, teen Oskar (Cristian Ortega) says without prodding. Preternaturally agile and wise beyond her years, Eli and her “Dad,” Hakan (Ewan Stewart), have moved next door to innocent and naive Oskar, who's mercilessly bullied and battered at school, and adrift at home with alcoholic Mum (Jo Freer). There have been murders in the woods, grisly and blood-splattered, with one victim tied upside down with throat slit. Right at the start we've seen Hakan asphyxiate the man, pull him up by the feet and drain his blood into a large plastic container. He uses a funnel, but the surrounding snow bleeds.

Don't go into the forest is the police admonition, but Oskar and Eli, each of them an outsider in his or her different way, begin a tentative dance of discovery and burgeoning love in this creepy sylvan playground. Nerdy Oskar needs Eli's strange strength and bravado; she needs his trust, for reasons that will become clearer as this magnificently told Grimm-like fairy tale bores into us. Eerie, the shocks keep coming while the revelations keep surprising.

You may know this story from the acclaimed novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (2004) or the two film versions (the internationally awarded Swedish film, 2008; and the less-inventive American remake, Let Me In, 2010), but this theater adaptation by Jack Thorne stands solidly on its own.

Immensely expressionistic, the play is realized with clammy precision by ace designer Christine Jones, with spooky lighting by Chahine Yavroyan and heart-beating, tiger-growling sound work by Gareth Fry. Ólafur Arnalds's washing music score thumps ominously, keens in pain or scares us out of our seats with its sharp edges. The birch forest is ever present, while a candy shop, Oskar's bed with spaceship blanket, a hospital ward, a high school locker room or Eli's sordid apartment are implied with the barest essentials. Especially effective is the swimming pool sequence – miraculously conjured out of the jungle gym – in which bullies Jonny (Graeme Dalling), Micke (Andrew Fraser) and Jimmy (Angus Miller) torment Oskar. As the water fills the Plexiglas tub, the audience fidgets nervously in anticipation of what is bound to happen. We've been fidgeting in dread since the play began.

Rife with confusing teen sexuality, parental abuse, whiffs of gender identity and the omniscient urge to connect with another person, Right One is one twisty, weird vampire story. Who wouldn't sympathize with uncoordinated Oskar's having to survive gym class, at the mercy of schoolmate brutes who force him to eat sand, or when he's feeling the first delicious unknown pangs of puppy love? We've seen kids before in such situations, but when their necks may become amorous hors d'oeuvres, we ache for their safety, their redemption, their happiness. I'd say salvation, but that's hoping for too much.

Ortega has been honing the role of mop-top Oskar since the play's premiere at Scotland's Dundee Rep (2013). He is the teen dweeb of your dreams, conflicted over a body that won't obey, a voice that breaks into squeaks when least he wants it to, and a horrifying realization that Eli is not what or whom she says she is. He doesn't understand adults or their world, but Eli speaks to him, affects him in profoundly unsettling ways. He likes this. Ortega is most winning, and we're always on his side.

A recent graduate of London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, young Mangan delivers a heartbreaking portrait that is both tomboy feral and ethereal. Watch her climb one of the birch trees like a lumberjack or fall backward into the blackness from atop the jungle gym. She's a formidable nubile black widow; see how she crouches before she pounces on her next victim. Wary and ageless, she's quite a love object, lapping up blood like a starved bat. “I am nothing,” she tells Oskar as their friendship develops, “not a child, not old, not a girl, not a boy. I am nothing.” I'm here to tell you that Mangan is “something.” Wraith-like, she's nearly luminescent.

Although a few less dramatic/dance “interludes” in Act I would be appreciated, Let the Right One In is sublime theater-making. Superbly directed by John Tiffany, assisted by Steven Hoggett's movement (both responsible for the stunning war drama Black Watch, the folksy musical Once and the current London blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), this vampire mystery play is thoroughly scary and utterly engrossing. We applaud the Alley for presenting this spellbinding piece. The theater will have to pay for the fingernail scratches in the armrests and the seat cushions that get wet from fright.

Let the Right One In continues through March 19 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $30 to $93.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover