Pickman’s Model – Old Red Lion Theatre, London

Writer and Director: Robert Lloyd Parry

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Although early-February is usually a time for romance, the Old Red Lion Theatre has decided that their horror festival deserves another outing, and instead of St Valentine they have a series of one-act pieces dedicated to and inspired by horror-writer H.P. Lovecraft. Why should spooky stories be confined to October when there is plenty of new plays and works-in-progress ready to scare us all year round.

Robert Lloyd Parry’s one-man rehearsed reading opens the Festival. Pickman’s Model is a 30-minute short focused on the paintings of Richard Upton Pickman whose work portrayed ghouls, witches and demonic forces. The story, told in retrospect by the narrator called Thurber, is the tale of a friendship broken by some, as yet, unknown incident, but as the man details the genius of the artist he still highly regards, an invitation to a private view proves his undoing.

There is something of The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lloyd Parry’s play, utilising the power of painting to represent something dark and demonic in a lifelike form. The text talks in detail about the construction and quality of Pickman’s work and its ability to convey a hellish atmosphere, while drawing on the artist’s own biography as the descendant of an accused witch in Salem. All of this adds valuable texture to writing that revels in its use of vocabulary, constructed to honour the Victorian style of ghost-stories, evoking a more formal mode of expression that helps to build a sense of anticipation throughout the piece.

To develop the text as performance, Lloyd Parry needs to work more on character, to give further clues to the audience about the different identities of the men in the story. We learn almost nothing of the narrator’s life, who he is and where his almost obsessive acquaintance with Pickman began, nor why the crux of the story centres on the dropped friendship rather than a more dramatic device. Likewise, other than some individual history, the personality of Pickman needs to be more fully created to understand why he chooses this moment and this friend to share his more provocative work, and is there a demonic, inhuman restlessness that drove his work in the way the text implies but never quite brings to life in the rather quiet interplay of men.

Read in a ghost-lit room illuminated by nothing but the lecture, Lloyd Parry has a real feel for creating a spooky setting, but like his other hero M.R. James, whose work he frequently adapts, this still feels a little too much like a short-story reading, with an essay-like tendency at times, rather than a potential play. Some thought to how this work should be dramatized through the creation of scenes, along with any movement and changes of pace will both help to guide future drafts and bring it to life. Yet Pickman’s Model has much to work with and by Halloween, this tale may well have reached its chilling potential.

Reviewed on 3 February 2019 | Image: Contributed

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