“I didn’t like to mention that I had imagined his sister singing to me in my sleep”
Ever ambitious, the Hope Theatre have launched a Gothic Season which will run right up until Christmas, taking in play The Worst Was This, lesbian bonkbuster Her Aching Heart and opening with this Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The House of Usher. Created by Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley and directed by Adamson with Phil Croft, it takes an actor-musician approach to the material and is very much its own version of the short story, pulling in influences from elsewhere in Poe’s oeuvre and also the depths of the writers’ own imaginations.
The House of Usher is told to us by the nameless figure of The Narrator, who unexpectedly finds himself invited to visit his old childhood friend Roderick Usher in their stately home. This he does, but he’s shocked to find him in the throes of an illness that has heightened his sensitivities to unbearable levels. And he’s not alone, Roderick’s twin sister Madeline appears similarly afflicted but has a different take on the matter from her overly protective sibling, forcing the Narrator into a series of difficult decisions, something made more challenging by the eeriness of the house itself.
Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to pitch right and between the writing and the direction, it’s not always immediately clear that all are on the same page, the ambience wavering between genuinely chilling and the almost camp. This cultivation of atmosphere is so vital that the insertion of an interval is a real issue, shattering the mood as it does. And it is exacerbated by a misjudged second act opener which, although a most tuneful number, sees the trio launch into an almost vaudevillean routine which further delays the resumption of the storytelling proper.
But when the atmosphere is allowed to build, there are some moments of disquieting beauty and disturbing strangeness that do much to capture the essence of the noted writer. The rockier influences of the score shine brightest, connecting with Cameron Harle’s reclusive rockstar of a Roderick and Richard Lounds’ Narrator is a talented storyteller, working the room like a pro in Verity Johnson’s in-the-round (square…) design. Musical director Rob Gathercole could usefully balance the sound a little better, to ensure the trio are equally weighted and that the accompaniment doesn’t overbear in this intimate space. Take out the interval, and The House of Usher could rise again.