With Halloween just around the corner, The Hope Theatre’s kicking off its gothic season with a new musical thriller written by Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, The House of Usher is creepy without being terrifying, at times darkly humorous and always faithful to Poe’s descriptive writing style.
The story begins with the Narrator (Richard Lounds) being summoned by old school friend Roderick Usher (Cameron Harle) to visit him at his ancient family home. But the House of Usher holds dark secrets, and with Roderick descending into madness and his sister Madeline (Eloise Kay) suffering from a mysterious affliction, will any of them make it out alive?
Anyone familiar with gothic literature will recognise the minutely descriptive style, which is faithfully recreated in every monologue, dialogue and musical number. This attention to detail means the story takes quite a while to get going, and the pace in Act 1 feels at times a bit on the slow side. Act 2, in contrast, is a whirlwind of drama and madness – catching us off guard after a first act whose tone is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, and which includes several unexpected laugh out loud moments.
Dan Bottomley’s music is equally varied in style, with a score that includes folk, rock and classical, performed by the cast of three actor-musicians, accompanied by musical director Rob Gathercole on piano. The mournful tones of clarinet and cello make for a suitably chilling soundtrack at times, although there are also moments when the instruments and other sound effects build to a dramatic climax and render the vocals hard to catch.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the show’s performed in the round(ish), and the cast can’t be facing everyone at once. On top of that, a lot of the action takes place in three of the four corners, which means, depending on the choice of seat, audience members spend a good deal of the evening craning backwards over our shoulders to try and see what’s going on. (For the same reason, it’s difficult to appreciate all the finer details of Verity Johnson’s set.)
That said, this arrangement does help to build the atmosphere, which is oppressive and unnerving from the start. With the actors retiring frequently to their corners, it’s hard to shake the lingering knowledge that there’s someone behind you who may jump out at any moment (call me a wuss, but I find that unsettling). Add to the mix some fantastic light and sound effects from Tom Kitney and Matthew Williams, and a climactic scene that’s genuinely quite frightening – and you’ve got the recipe for, if nothing else, some pretty messed up dreams.
The cast of three give it their all: Richard Lounds revels in his role as storyteller, interacting directly with the audience and reacting to all the horror he uncovers with a suitably British stiff upper lip. Eloise Kay is sympathetic as the beautiful damsel in distress who veers back and forth from playful to hysterical, and Cameron Harle falls somewhere between Heathcliff and Russell Brand as the sharp-tongued, wild-eyed, leather-trousered and increasingly deranged Roderick.
Once it gets going, The House of Usher is an enjoyably creepy story that takes pleasure in catching its audience unawares, in a variety of ways. It’s not all-out terrifying (for which I’m grateful, by the way), but it’s certainly unsettling and atmospheric enough to get the Halloween season started.
The House of Usher is at The Hope Theatre until 5th November.