Pros: Classic story survives despite clumsy adaptation.
Cons: Unconvincing performances and ineffective songs.
The countdown to Halloween has begun, and so inevitably the nation’s Fringe theatres fill their programmes with spooky and scary fare, frequently turning to staples of the gothic genre for inspiration. After the unholy trinity of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde, the works of 19th century American writer Edgar Allan Poe are probably the most often plundered. His short story The Fall of the House of Usher has inspired a Philip Glass opera, a Steven Berkoff play and a Roger Corman film, to name but a few adaptations. But if you’re going to take on a classic, be warned: you’d better be careful…
The plot involves a nameless Narrator responding to a letter from his childhood friend Roderick Usher, beseeching him to visit him in his creepy ancestral home where he lives with his twin sister Madeline. They’re both unwell: Roderick with a strange hypersensitivity, Madeline with a less specific frailty. The visit does not end well.
The main problem with this production is that although we’re repeatedly told by the Narrator (the plummy Richard Loundes) that his story is chilling, horrific, etc. and it simply isn’t. At times the cast seem to be performing almost tongue-in-cheek, and I wondered at first if we might be in for a knock-about cheesy send-up of the genre. But if the show is aiming for Rocky Horror, it sadly lands closer to Scooby Doo, and the deadly earnestness of most of the show indicates we’re supposed to be taking it seriously.
As Roderick, the leather-clad Cameron Harle is campy and aloof, all ‘My dear friend, have you considered the sentience of vegetable matter?’; it’s not so much creepily weird as outright annoying. If I were the Narrator I would have swiftly made my excuses and headed home. But an instant and improbable attraction between him and Madeline (an earnest Eloise Kay) keeps him in the action.
The music is performed by the cast on guitar, cello and clarinet/saxophone, with accompaniment from a keyboard player and backing track. This provides some pleasantly atmospheric moments, but the score too often falls back on frivolous piano riffs that undermine any sense of drama. For example, an unnecessary recital of Poe’s poem The Raven is quite effective on its own terms until the piano inexplicably switches to roll-out-the-barrel jauntiness. The songs aren’t particularly tuneful, with rather clumsy lyrics such as ‘What’s the point of living if you can’t be alive?’ which won’t challenge any philosophers in the audience.
There are a few nice directorial flourishes, the sound and lighting are slick and logical, and the climax exerts a certain noisy power. But unfortunately the production falls between two stools: if feels too unimaginatively respectful when it reproduces long passages of the original text, yet the addition of songs and humorous elements aren’t well enough accomplished to provide an interesting new look at the piece.
The programme notes mention that the show’s co-creators had their initial meeting to discuss this project in February of this year. Eight months is a short time to develop a full-length musical from scratch – perhaps a longer gestation period would have produced something more worthwhile.
The Hope Theatre is an excellent studio space and as a fan of the genre I’m glad they’re presenting a Gothic season of three shows. I just hope the rest of the season is more chilling than this disappointing opening production.
Created by: Luke Adamson & Dan Bottomley
Director: Luke Adamson & Phil Croft
Musical Director: Rob Gathercole
Producer: Tom Tucker
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: http://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/the-house-of-usher/
Booking Until: 5 November 2016