Frankenstein: How a beatbox crew brought an iconic monster back to life

The Beatbox Academy have come up with a unique sonic twist on the Mary Shelley classic

Every week at London’s Battersea Arts Centre, a group of people between the ages of 11 and 29 come together to practice their musical instrument. You can hear snares and swishes, hi-hats and scratching, rimshots and rolls. Eyes closed, the noises sound percussive. Eyes open, you realise they issue from the young people’s mouths. The collective comes together as the Beatbox Academy, a group responsible for one of the most innovative theatre pieces seen in London in decades. Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster – a hybrid performance piece based around the human voice, which opens at the Gate Theatre on April 19th – is their creation.

Conrad Murray, the co-director of the show, was a founding member of the Beatbox Academy. He grew up on a local London estate, and was involved with the youth theatre at Battersea Arts Centre. “It was a typical traditional middle class youth theatre,” he remembers, “and it wasn’t bad, but I didn’t feel that comfortable.” He and his friends “would get told off for ‘being naughty’ or having a bad attitude, but we were just doing our thing.”

Murray thought it would be “cool if there was a creative space for young people to come to that would be new and different, where we could come and rap and just be ourselves”. He invited friends to come along and “Battersea Arts Centre could see that I was leading a large, diverse group who wouldn’t have had access to lessons or anything but who were interested in music, spoken-word poetry, rap, who really wanted to learn and perform together.”

Class barriers

Murray became their facilitator, but for him it “wasn’t just about us performing, showing off. It was about developing different techniques around art and sound,” removing “class barriers and financial barriers around theatre and arts spaces that have been going for a long time. You could just come along. You didn’t need to bring anything with you.” The group’s unofficial motto, as Murray explains, is “all snares are welcome”.


Nadine Rose Johnson, one of the performers in Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster, started performing with the Beatbox Academy as a young teenager. “I didn’t know how to do anything when I started. I was from a poor, working-class background, went to school with like 2,000 children, so there was no one going to [help me develop] my interest in singing. I refused to beatbox for years, was too scared to try, but I really wanted to be there.” She started off singing, but eventually she found the confidence to experiment with beatbox’s growls and hisses, and now has her own speciality – the echo – just one of the many sounds that make up the fabric of the show.

Although the group has been performing at the Battersea Arts Centre for years, Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster has catapulted them into the theatrical mainstream. This was a deliberate artistic strategy, Murray says, as well as a political one. They chose Frankenstein as a stimulus text, he elaborates, because “we knew it would be catchy. It’s on the GCSE [curriculum] and the year we started was 200 years since it was published.”

Historical resonance

The classical content and historical resonance would allow the group “to put our stories and our work in spaces we wouldn’t usually have access to. The thing about beatbox,” he continues, “is that it has a specific audience and it is hard to reach a different audience without a hook that people will recognise.”

Mary Shelley’s book became that hook, but it also came to have a deep resonance for the group as they improvised around it, as Johnson explains. “Usually we would just play around, make a scratch about whatever we wanted, but this was like something more relevant. [Shelley] was 18 when she wrote [Frankenstein], the same age as loads of us who were making the show, and the idea of the monster was something we could all relate to.”

In Shelley’s text, the group found a language to articulate their own sense of disenfranchisement in contemporary English society. “Shelley was a rebel,” Murray elaborates. “Making a book like this in such a sexist time. Basically inventing the sci-fi genre. She was really sick.” The story’s arc, too, reflected “how kids from the [working class] estates, the wrong side of the tracks in London, are often seen as monsters,” David Cumming, the show’s other co-director, affirms.

Cumming describes the work, which was filmed for BBC4 after its premiere in 2019, as “a proper grassroots production”, and he credits the Battersea Arts Centre’s “scratch process” as instrumental to enabling work that speaks from and to a community to develop. “They commission small projects that run over two or three months and culminate in a scratch performance. If they like what you are doing, feel there is something in it, they invite you to do another.”

‘Stitching together’

Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster developed from that process, as the group realised the effective match between the work’s themes and the beatbox format. “We were looking at stuff about breath and the physical aspect of using air and lungs [when beatboxing],” Cumming continues, “and that fed into the idea of the aliveness of the monster.” The art of beatboxing itself “is a stitching together of sounds and that reflects the stitching together of the monster.” The group experimented with different ideas around the staging but decided that, because beatbox “is often treated a bit like a sideshow, we wanted it to be centrestage” to advocate for it “as a real, proper art”.

The show was originally performed at the Battersea Arts Centre, and when it began to tour, the group was keen that it would be in traditional mainstream theatre venues. Murray is especially passionate about this aspect of their achievement. “We wanted to put our stories and our work in spaces we wouldn’t usually have access to,” he says. “For us, bringing our young people onto these sanctified stages, taking them out of the back rooms, it changes them.”

While they hoped to reach a new, more traditional audience with Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster, the show is uncompromisingly for the working class youth the group represents too, to bring them along with them as they challenge the middle-class theatrical status quo. With this in mind, the performances are deliberately relaxed, with audiences invited to film the work on their mobile phones, join in with the performers, dance in the aisles.

The formal space of the Gate Theatre, then, with its tuxedoed ushers patrolling the aisles, seems a natural home for them to stage their beautiful, awe-inspiring, urban disruption of a classic text. The Beatbox Academy are on the way.

Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster runs at the Gate Theatre from April 19-30