Pub theatres are the incubating spaces of new ideas, and the Hope Theatre, which has been transformed into the infamous House of Usher, has become a space full of good ideas with plenty of room for growth. American gothic author Edgar Allen Poe’s short story has been adapted into a musical for an intimate theatre, and while the play draws directly from Poe’s phantasmal poetic language, the adaptation often finds itself at odds with the original content. Writers Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley report in the programme that they went through multiple drafts, ultimately culminating in the ‘gothic Halloween musical thriller that has taken a piece of classic American literature and sexed it up with actor musicians, synthesizers, electric guitars, harp glissandos and suicide attempts.’ While I’m certainly all for theatrical adaptations of gothic literature, and certainly for musical adaptations, I cannot help but feel that sexing up with suicide, or pleather pants, is not the route to take with this material.
The Narrator (Richard Lounds) is summoned for a visit by his old friend Roderick Usher (Cameron Harle), although the two haven’t met since their schooldays. Usher is confined to his great mansion by a mysterious illness, and he desires his friend’s company. Upon arrival, the Narrator discovers that the house is unnerving, full of creaking, groaning amorphous hallways. His host is equally disconcerting, bound to fits of mania followed by obsessive rage and acute ennui. Much to Usher’s dismay, the Narrator also discovers his sister, Madeline Usher, who reveals to the Narrator the deep, dark secrets that keep her and her brother captive in the house. The Narrator is transfixed by Madeline despite her ‘hysteria’, as Roderick calls it, and is determined to save her from a cruel fate, even if Roderick forbids it. The Narrator must figure out who to believe as the house and Usher sink deeper and deeper into despair.
There are core ideas here that excite and delight, including a black-box theatre space that locks us into the house and characters also serving as the musicians. Through the music, Madeline’s character in particular is fleshed out to give her more of a voice. The idea to take one of the opening premises of the original story and extend it into a major, dramatic reveal is a nice touch. But while this plot is compelling and tragic, it also winds and slows in awkward places. It takes much of the first act for an impetus to be given to our Narrator to stay, and for the audience to understand just what is at stake for the characters involved.
Given that Roderick Usher wastes away for days, idly strumming odd melodies on his guitar, turning the story into a musical is an exciting way to transform the gothic on the page into sonorous creepiness. Yet the show is padded out into a 2 hour run with musical outbursts of exposition that weigh down the first act. The sounds of guitar with synthesizers is often tonally at odds with the setting, deflating the sense of urgency and uncanniness that is so vital to the suspense and success of the story. The fun liberty of making a musical version of Poe’s The Raven into Roderick’s nightmare is executed well, played by Madeline in a black-feathered mask, but the raven is never seen again and we forget why we’re in the House of Usher in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the love triangles, long ballads and songs warning me of hell that often define the gothic musical genre, but the show flirts so heavily with the gritty, beautiful creepiness of Poe’s original language that it frequently loses its way as it dips into campy narrations. Anachronistic costume design also deducts from its potential to truly unnerve. In fact, it’s not the humming songs orchestrated by guitar, clarinet, keyboard and cello that set the stage best, but the quiet moments. I will hold onto the scene where Roderick led us into the crypt, illuminating the small theatre space with just three candles. He was smiling, but with the melodic sound of guitar and dripping water I remembered I was actually in Poe’s story, about to witness the fall of the House of Usher. It is these moments of simplicity, where sound and light is married to the physicality of Harle’s performance, that the play truly shines.
The House of Usher is on at the Hope Theatre until 5th November 2016. Click here for more details.