Big Finish: JEKYLL & HYDE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: JEKYLL & HYDE Review

Tony’s feeling thirsty.

The thing about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde is that, while it’s absolutely a product of its time (1886, some 11 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula curdled the blood), it’s a story that feels like it’s as old as human history. 


And more than a lot of the other great gothic philosophical horror stories, you genuinely can trace the themes of Jekyll and Hyde back through the whole of civilised human history.


It's the story of a polar duality in humanity, and certainly in Western cultures, that duality is baked right in to everything we’re taught from an early age. Night and day. Black and white. Yes and no. Left and right. God and the Devil. Angels and demons. Good and evil – we’re trained to understand and appreciate polar opposites from a very early age. So Jekyll and Hyde is a story that instinctively feels like it fits into our culture – the separation of one man into two binary opposites, in this case, the impulses to good and evil.


And where Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein shows the impact of new ideas of physics and biology on our understanding of life, and Oscar Wilde’s 1890 Picture of Dorian Gray espouses art as a mechanism for immortality despite immorality, Stevenson takes on the science of chemistry as a way to split the atom of personality, separating the impulses to good and evil through the tools of a discipline that was emerging from a thousand years of hearsay and mysticism into a properly regulated, repeatable and respectable scientific method. Like Frankenstein and Faustus before him, Dr Jekyll in unsurpassed in his field, and the hubris of his genius comes back to haunt him. Like those other doctors, it’s his scientific hubris that means he has to be taught a lesson, and the novella puts him (and his friends) through the wringer before the book ends.


This Is Not The Story You Think It Is

Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is actually fairly short – it’s at best a novella. And the mystifying thing is that everyone thinks they know the story, when most people get it completely wrong by focusing on the big transformation scene – it’s the thing everybody knows about Jekyll and Hyde. Jekyll I his laboratory with his potion, transforming into Hyde, ta da!


The story in the novella is much, much better than that single moment, and it’s the story of some of Jekyll’s friends first and foremost, closing in on the mystery of a ghastly abomination known as Edward Hyde, and what his connection could be to their friend, as his personality and his moods become ever more erratic towards them.


For the Big Finish adaptation, Nicholas Briggs went back to his 2016 stage version of the story, which was part of a series of mostly crime-drama plays at Nottingham. That allows for a much more faithful rendering of Stevenson’s original story, but with additional police procedural beats that add to and heighten the development of the mystery at the heart of Jekyll and Hyde, and help re-instil the story we all think we know with some nail-biting drama as it goes along.


In the novella, the story is mostly told from the point of view of Gabriel Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer and friend, with occasional recalled conversations with their mutual friend Dr Lanyon, and a cousin of Utterson’s, Richard Enfield. It’s also largely delivered either through Utterson’s inner monologue, set down in words, or through letters from others, including both Lanyon and Jekyll himself. 


Dr Jekyll And The Bill

There’s a policeman in the story, Inspector Newcomen, but he’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it character, because largely, the story enforces the idea that mysteries between Victorian gentlemen can be solved BY those gentlemen without bringing in the forces of law and order, who also deal with the hoi polloi. In the Big Finish version, Newcomen’s part is significantly expanded, because a police investigation, with its numerous interrogation scenes, is the perfect way to take us outside Utterson’s head while still delivering the step-by-step process of a mystery.


And that’s essentially what this version of Jekyll and Hyde delivers – gothic horror as crime drama.


The central roles of Jekyll and Hyde are played by John Heffernan, an actor who’s no stranger to playing several divergent characters at once, especially after his Big Finish experience playing the Nine (a Time Lord with multiple personalities all able to pop up at any moment), but here he sinks deeply into the duality of Jekyll and Hyde and the performance is rich and uncanny at the same time. 


The Power of Hyde

Sticking to the novella’s structure, it’s actually Hyde we encounter first - both in a frenzied, murderous attack on a popular politician (remember them?), and in a story of an encounter where Hyde stomped a young girl underfoot for having the temerity to run into him. Potentially the best compliment we can pay here is to say that you’d have real difficulty recognising Hyde as John Heffernan, because the performance is strong enough that you can practically smell the evil, the moral degradation, and the raging fury just beneath the surface of his words. 


When, eventually, we hear him as Jekyll, he’s more recognisably Heffernan, but while there’s a certain necessary ‘over-goodness’ to Jekyll – he is, after all, supposed to be a man at least temporarily purged of all his natural vices – as the performance goes on, Heffernan is able to bring out plenty of light and shade in the character. There’s a certain scientific hubris which is essential to Jekyll as a man who aims to do what he succeeds in doing, to split the personality of a man into its good and evil sides. There’s a more ordinary level of conceit, too – a very male sense of “I have this under control, please stop trying to help me.” 


And eventually, John Heffernan is able to give us the sense of a desperate man, increasing needing greater quantities of less pure medication to keep Hyde at bay, realising as he does that Hyde – the evil that has lurked inside him – actually has a stronger, more primal desire to live than he does as Jekyll. In a sense, there’s a modern play in Heffernan’s performance on the life of a drug addict – cocky at first, confident, then shaken, and eventually subsumed by desperate addiction – but there’s also something that’s intensely true to the spirit of the Victorian age in which the story was written in the way Jekyll is revealed as having initially had both natures inside himself, and with a truly Victorian spirit of scientific adventurism, having sought to distil and master his demon-self, only to discover that the prurience he sought to banish is ultimately stronger than his rectitude and righteousness.


A Strong Cast

If this sounds like Jekyll and Hyde is a one-man show, that’s only because Heffernan, taking both roles, is beyond masterful – he commands any scene he’s in, and with the help of some effectively creepy sound design, his Hyde commands even scenes in which he doesn’t appear, again mirroring the original story.


But we’ve said that story is really the groping towards a hidden truth by the people AROUND Jekyll, and that’s delivered authentically here too. Barnaby Kay as Gabriel Utterson is a well-blended mix of gentlemanly reason and Victorian horror at the unexplained and seemingly inexplicable. Nicholas Asbury as Dr Lanyon actually feels like he has the more complete and cyclic journey, having scoffed at Jekyll’s research as mysticism as witchcraft, and having his mind broken when he sees the truth of the transformation. 


Perhaps the best character in the piece apart from Heffernan’s headlining double-turn is Robert Portal’s Inspector Newcomen. The very fact that his part in the original story is so small means he’s free of the strictures of the text, and here gives a performance in the very best Inspector Lestrade/Chief Inspector Japp mould, both dogged and clever, both sarcastic and insightful. He’s a highly successful expansion by Nick Briggs, and Robert Portal pitches him straight down the line of relentless fictional policemen we have loved, and wins.


Nit Picking

If there’s a nit to be picked, it would be that longstanding Big Finish fans might find the music a touch familiar – it feels like The Avengers meets Counter Measures with a dash of Survivors, rather than anything that particularly announces itself as the Jekyll and Hyde suite. But the overall sound design builds in presence and ominous power throughout the majority of the story, leaving you quite strung out enough by the time the major climactic scenes are delivered.


The Verdict

Jekyll and Hyde from Big Finish is not only a great addition to the company’s line of Classic tales, it’s a thoroughly well-considered, authentic rendering of the story, with a new and useful overlay of police drama. John Heffernan gives a performance you need a whole new barrel of superlatives to describe, and it would only be the production’s just desserts if it became a definitive interpretation of the classic, and one that sends younger listeners scurrying away in deeply appreciative terror.

Jekyll and Hyde is available to purchase from the Big Finish website.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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