Taking full advantage of the passing of HG Wells’s oeuvre into the public domain, audio producers Big Finish Productions kick off a series of full-cast adaptations of Wells’s books with The Invisible Man, starring the late, great Sir John Hurt in the title role.
John Hurt’s gentle yet steely tones are perfect for Griffin, the ‘experimental investigator’ who turns himself into a monster. Hurt’s voice, though at times perhaps somewhat weakened by age and illness, is impressively commanding here, with his charming but ever-so-slightly terrifying shifting cadences demanding that we pay close attention, even as he reels off a seemingly endless chunk of Victorian technobabble.
The first half does admittedly suffer from some slightly jarring tonal shifts, though the blame lies as much with the original novel as with this adaptation. It occasionally struggles to balance the humour against the horror, and some slightly broad performances sit rather awkwardly against the sleekly menacing vocal work elsewhere. This is not to say that anybody gives a bad performance per se, but it might have been worth streamlining out some of the more minor characters in order to achieve a more balanced mood.
But it’s the second half when this adaptation really hits its stride. The dark tale of Griffin’s journey to invisibility is addictive, and Hurt judges every beat perfectly, expressing with equal clarity the sorrow of being unlucky in love and the cold detachment (matched with scientific zeal) as he experiments upon an unlucky cat. Equally strong is Blake Ritson as Kemp; while Griffin is portrayed as a callous scientist who is ultimately to be pitied, you never quite know where you stand with Kemp until the very end. With an outward affability masking an underlying steeliness, Ritson subtly but masterfully rises to match Hurt’s performance.
This new adaptation adds new material not found in the original novel. Writer Jonathan Barnes creates a new framing narrative – based on the conclusion of the book but with its own volition – book-ending and intersecting with an script that keeps Wells’s voice and is admirably close to the letter of his work. There is also a new conclusion which showcases particularly strong work from Ritson, leaving Big Finish with plenty of room for a follow-up should they wish it.
The play has a lovely score from Jamie Robertson and top notch sound design from Matthew Cochrane, both of which come together in the second act to bring a nervy energy to the proceedings. The hunt for the invisible man becomes a somewhat startling field of noise, richly textured without sacrificing coherence. Praise must be heaped upon director Ken Bentley, who succeeds in both these noisy moments and the quieter, more introspective scenes which complement them.
This release will no doubt attract a larger audience than it might otherwise have done due to it being one of Hurt’s last pieces of work, but beyond this slightly depressing reason to buy, it is a well-crafted piece of drama with several excellent performances and gorgeous sound design. Highly recommended!