Providence – Old Red Lion, London

Writers & Directors: Dominic Allen and Simon Maeder

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

With Halloween almost upon us, our thoughts turn to spooks and scares as we revel in stories of terror and fear. But rarely do we think of the authors of these tales, the people who created the monsters and unexplained happenings that frighten us so cleverly. Dominic Allen and Simon Maeder’s 65-minute show Providence about Howard Phillips Lovecraft is part-biography, part-dramatization of some of his most famous creations.

In 1910 on the verge of suicide by drowning in the town of Providence, Howard Phillips Lovecraft is visited at the lakeside by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe who takes Lovecraft on a tour of his life, a chance to relive his best and worst moment, the people he met and to reconsider his more questionable views. Considering himself an amateur journalist, Lovecraft revisits his mother’s insanity and death, his early work as a ghostwriter and his difficult marriage before facing his own mortality as a writer.

Providence is quite an experience, weaving together rapidly created scenes from Lovecraft’s life with a few very well staged examples from his body of work. There are few indications of what’s to come as both strands are jumbled together leaving the audience to figure out what is happening and why. With years of Lovecraft’s life and an astonishing array of characters to include, most of which are performed by just one actor, this is a high energy show that rarely takes its foot off the accelerator.

You have to admire Allen and Maeder’s stagecraft which, with minimal props and some well-chosen sound effects, take the audience from small-town America, to New York, to dreamworlds, creepy houses, fictional laboratories and bustling conferences. And they do it all convincingly, the audience may not always keep track of the narrative structure but the changes in place, time and tone are convincingly created with mime, sound and lighting.

Yet Providence will be confusing for anyone who doesn’t already have a good knowledge of Lovecraft’s life, and the pace creates a dizzying effect with a succession of characters and activities that means you don’t always quite grasp exactly what is happening. The writers never shy away from Lovecraft’s questionable views and particularly his antisemitism, introducing an eleventh-hour discussion about separating the art from artist, whether his views informed his writing and whether Lovecraft is to be pitied for his ignorance. Maybe this discussion could be introduced earlier, using that to frame the story rather than the haphazard biography.

The best scenes by far are the recreations of Lovecraft’s stories, four horror-shorts full of darkness and creeping tension that are a high point of the show. There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the creators for their subject and both deliver charismatic almost vaudevillian performances, especially Allen who morphs from one character to the next in seconds including Lovecraft’s grandfather, austere and creepy mother, Houdini, a variety of writer friends and Poe with just the flick of a sheet.

An interesting if slightly loose show, Providence needs to engage a little more with Lovecraft’s darker side, not the horror stories he wrote but the views he espoused, exploring them and their relation to his work in more detail, because this Halloween Lovecraft himself seems far scarier than the fiends he created.

Runs Until: 31 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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