A tale of incest, obsession and evil. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, is ripe for adaptation.
But to try and do justice to this Gothic horror in the confines of London’s tiny, 50-seat, Hope Theatre, is enormously ambitious.
Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley’s musical version, The House of Usher, is the opener in the theatre’s Gothic season. It has a lot going for it – but it’s not quite there just yet.
Directors Adamson and Phil Croft need to focus on the thriller’s intentions. At present I’m not sure whether its narrative-heavy plot is aiming for a kind of adult Jackanory, a Hammer Horror spoof or the lost traditions of the Grand Guignol.
Richard Lounds’ beautifully enunciated and melodramatic narration creates suspense and intrigue only for some of the dialogue to then veer towards black comedy.
The play’s protagonist, the quite barking mad Roderick Usher (Carmeron Harle) is the personification of evil – well that’s what comes of 300 years of inbreeding – while his sister (Eloise Kay) is pure Miss Havisham.
What gives this production the edge, and something they always do very well at The Hope, is the sound effects and, for The House of Usher, they are a vital element.
Matthew (Will) Williams’ sound design brings to life the death of a house – or even public house. In a small dark auditorium, above the historic Hope & Anchor pub in Islington, there was the very real possibility that its ancient bones were finally giving out.
There are creaks and groans, brickwork tumbling, roofing timbers sounding as though they would give way any second. Would the audience fall prey to a dark and malevolent curse hanging over the building – or was it all part of the magic of theatre?
This is a story that really needs to be seen on screen with a mega budget providing terrifying special effects. That this company comes up with the goods – for a fringe production – is extraordinary.
Harle’s Roderick Usher is a young Gary Oldman mixed with the eccentricity of Johnny Depp. Dressed like a modern day rock star, in black leather, silk shirt and Beatles tinted shades, he glowers and snarls with all the menace of a good, stock, Gothic villain.
In one scene he regales the audience with Poe’s sinister and supernatural poem, The Raven, and it sends a small shiver around the room.
The House of Usher is told from the perspective of the pony-tailed Lounds’ Narrator. He receives a letter from a former school-friend, Roderick, asking him to call. He’s sick with some form of hyper-sensitivity and is confined in the family pile, too ill to leave. We wants cheering up and he needs someone to talk to.
Sharing the house is his sister, Madeline, who, he claims, is at death’s door. Usher, selfishly, wants his visitor to himself. When we find out the reason why he has such a terrible hold on the innocent young girl, it is almost too horrible to contemplate.
These twisted siblings, condemned to haunt a house they believe is possessed, see their guest as the last and final hope.
As the story builds to a chilling climax we hear the house wreak a terrible revenge on those inside it.
Kay’s childlike Madeline skips around the stage a picture of innocence, the antithesis of her warped brother. She also plays a selection of wind instruments while Harle strums the guitar and Lounds mans the cello.
I’m not overly keen on the increasing use of actor-musicians. It can work, and I understand why, with low budget fringe productions, it is necessary but, in this show, it detracts from the integrity of the character, albeit the weeping victim or the heroic storyteller.
It’s impossible to build good characterisation if your Narrator must suddenly break off from recounting a tale of mystery and suspense to sit down and play the cello or the hysterical Madeline has to come out of character to pick up a sax.
The musical numbers, from the pens of its creators, are atmospheric and well sung; the production is dark, brooding and well acted. At one stage Usher dashes to one of the room’s shuttered windows, throws them open and rages against a fictional storm. Goodness knows what passers-by in Upper Street made of the shouting.
A valiant and engaging piece. Was I scared? Nah – but I’ll be careful about accepting invitations from long lost schoolmates.
The House of Usher runs at the Hope Theatre until November 5.
Dark and sinister, The House of Usher makes a fine opener to the Hope Theatre’s Gothic Season.