Coming up to Halloween what’s better than to have a really frightening theatrical experience to get you in the mood? The House of Usher, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the classic gothic horror story with its themes of melancholy, hauntings, live-burial and suggested incest, would thus seem to fit the bill nicely. Unfortunately, this production is not scary, is not chilling and by no means sends you out onto the dark alleyways of Islington nervously looking over your shoulder – other than to make sure Emily Thornberry isn’t following you.
The horror of the original is entirely anaesthetised by the stodgy characterisation, the quasi-operatic songs and the overlong and wearying narrative-exposition. Richard Rounds as The Narrator is apparently experiencing the horrors of the House in the role of friend to Roderick Usher, the owner, and despite all the spooky music, the atmospheric lighting and the realistic sound effects, fear never once flickers over his insouciant features as he attempts to come to terms with the evil that haunts the House and its two inhabitants. We get the occasional quizzical glance, eyebrow raised, lips slightly curled, but that’s it. Mind you, Rounds is severely hampered in his quest for gothic-horror-fright-face by the fact that every time there’s an alarming bit or a moody bit or a bit with a raven he has to waltz around the small performance space with a ’cello and bow in hand. I applaud actors who create the music live on stage as all three do in this show but in this case it seems we have a case of putting the cart before the horse, not least with the amount of time, care and precision with which said Narrator has to deposit the precious instrument in a secure location every time he finishes with it so that it doesn’t fall over. I can see what directors Luke Adamson and Phil Croft are trying to do here but the ’cello gets in the way of the action. And the acting. And in the way of what little horror there is to go round.
Having narrated away, wearyingly, The Narrator suddenly bursts into song, operatically voicing some further exposition: it’s a bit like the Go Compare advert without the moustache. Meanwhile, Cameron Harle as Roderick Usher, with his cool, orange, circular shades, leather gear and guitar in hand puts in mind a younger Keith Richard. Harle begins well in this guise and gives a brief but effective turn as a disguised butler, but he soon gets dragged into the inevitable drawn-out explanations of plot and strictures of storification.
Harle is clearly not a singer and he morphs into a strange kind of Rex Harrison-Lee Marvin redux as he rasps and drawls his way through the lyrics. Eloise Kay as Madeline, Roderick’s sister, really is a singer and has a fine voice: when she sings we listen. Unfortunately, once she gets shut up in a coffin, we’re back to the two guys trying to out-explicate each other and pretend that it’s frightening. There’s a nice moment when Madeline, having (almost) covertly extricated herself from the coffin appears again but, as I say, it’s a nice moment, not a scary moment or a gothic horror moment.
The music, by Director Adamson’s co-creator Dan Bottomley, has some good moments as well as some highly derivative intros from the likes of Stairway to Heaven and Chasing Cars. Musical Director Rob Gathercole on keyboards, along with Kay on her clarinet and sax, give some texture and depth to the atmosphere of the piece though the sequences where the music booms and The Narrator and Roderick rail against Usher’s evil curse are difficult to focus on as the words get lost – though you tend to feel you haven’t missed much.
Praise must be given, though, to Lighting Designer Tom Kitney who creates the right kind of spooky atmosphere with particularly effective deployment of LED spots and, combined with the creak-fest of a sound design (Wills Wills Design), the right backdrop is created for a “gothic Halloween musical thriller” as the programme notes describe House of Usher. Well gothic it maybe and Halloween is close and no one can deny it’s a musical – but it ain’t no thriller: we thus leave the auditorium gagging for some good old creep-up-and-scare-the-pants-off-you horror.
Review by Peter Yates
Part of the GOTHIC SEASON; Autumn/Winter 2016
The brand new gothic musical thriller
“What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?”
The Ushers are an ancient and noble line, known for a number of things; repeated deeds of charity, a passionate devotion to the intricacies of musical science and a collection of many works of exalted art. What is not generally known is that they are plagued by an ancient family evil, a curse.
This curse is causing Roderick Usher to be ill, sensitive to light and sound and unable to step outside the doors of his house. He calls upon his old childhood friend for help. When the friend arrives he finds himself becoming more and more involved and falling deeper and deeper into the dark tangled web that is The House of Usher.
Secrets surface, friendships are tested and a dark secret threatens to bring the House of Usher crashing down.
Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic masterpiece “The Fall of The House of Usher” with a brand new score and a small cast of exceptional actor-musicians this gothic musical thriller promises to be the Halloween show not to miss. All shall fall.
The House Of Usher
Created by LUKE ADAMSON & DAN BOTTOMLEY
Inspired by EDGAR ALLAN POE
The Hope Theatre
207 Upper Street
London N1 1RL
18th Oct – 5th Nov 2016
Tuesday – Saturday 7.45pm
Tickets £15 & £12 concessions
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