REVIEW: THE HOUSE OF USHER (Hope Theatre) ★★★

thumbnail_production-shot-31An adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allan Poe opens the Hope Theatre’s gothic season, the brainchild of writers Luke Anderson and Dan Bottomley. Poe’s original tale still stands as one of the founding inspirations for gothic literature as we know it today, displaying his classic heavily descriptive prose and thirst for creating densely atmospheric scenes that ensnare a multitude of the senses.

The tale tells of the prominent Usher family bloodline, survived by Roderick and his sister Madeline. Our narrator, an old school friend of Roderick, is summoned to the ageing house, urged by its Master to come and assist him with several woes he is having regarding the legendary ‘curse’ upon the Usher family, the “constitutional family evil” that is affecting his sister and his own mind.

Anderson and Bottomley intentionally stuck to the main bones of the original short story, but transform Poe’s tale into a highly original piece of musical theatre. It was interesting to observe how the writers sectioned pieces of the narrative out into song and spoken word, distributing this well. The Narrator has to carry along much of the story, so having a mixture of solos, ensembles and instrumental pieces assisted with the delivery.

The set design was immersive; the audience enter the small, square room to find the play’s three actors already seated in its different corners, in character and adorned with instruments. We sat in a 360-degree format around the theatre, and their individual stages – seats and props, to mimic sections of a grand house with many rooms – were carefully arranged, with the decor convincingly gothic.

This was an accomplished cast, displaying multi—instrumental abilities and an excellent range of singing voices and styles suited to the variety of genres embarked upon. At times the vocal abilities were mismatched, such as the operatic abilities of Eloise Key (as Madeline) overshadowing that of the other performers. Equally, whilst the backing music was supposed to be subtle, it was at times rather distracting due to its volume, so the actors became harder to understand.

Richard Lounds was charming as our narrator, receiving many a laugh from the audience throughout his description of events, and Cameron Harle delivered an excellent performance as the troubled and eccentric Roderick. Eloise Key projected the ghost-like ethereal presence of Madeline well, and overall this was an effectively cast trio of actors who complement one another’s abilities.

Whilst the variety of instruments and musical talent was ambitious and performed well, I struggled to understand the direction in which Anderson and Bottomley are striving towards. It feels as though they are trying to do a little bit too much, combining various styles of music – rock, country, operatic numbers, and more – into what ends up feeling like an unfocused mish-mash of music. The production feels uncertain of itself – is it trying to be taken seriously as a theatrical piece of horror, or be a light-hearted comedic spook?

Despite this, the ending (the last 20 minutes or so) was excellent. The pace picked up and the writers seemed to find their style. It’s a shame that the rest of the piece did not have as strong an identity; if they can have the same pace and consistency that the last 20 minutes held, then the piece would gain higher credibility.

I would suggest that this production works better as one act, rather than two. In order to successfully build tension in a work of horror, the less breaks there are the better, as it keeps the audience’s minds focused. What was done in 2 hours and 15 minutes could be more effectively done in 1 hour and 15.

THE HOUSE OF USHER has a lot of potential, I could see it following in the footsteps of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – however, it needs a strategic and creative re-think if it wishes to be taken to the next level.

Reviewed by Laura Evans
Photo: Elisha Adamson

THE HOUSE OF USHER plays at the Hope Theatre until 5 November 2016