The House of Usher – Hope Theatre, London

Book: Luke Adamson
Music and Lyrics: Dan Bottomley
Director: Luke Adamson and Phil Croft
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

A mysterious house, a strange letter to a friend and a family curse – the perfect ingredients for a gothic horror story just in time for Halloween. Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Fall of the House of Usher has been reimagined as musical, written by Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley, and currently playing at the tiny Hope Theatre in Islington as part of its gothic season which runs until December.

tell-us-block_editedUnexpectedly the Narrator is summoned for a visit by his old friend Roderick Usher, although the two haven’t met since their schooldays. Overwhelmed by the sinister aspect of the house, Usher wants company during his current illness, but the Narrator discovers Usher’s beautiful sister Madeline needs his help to escape a family curse. As events take a dark turn the hero must determine whether his friend is mad or if the building itself exerts a terrible power.

Adamson and Bottomley’s interpretation has been exceptionally faithful to its source material, and rather than straightforwardly dramatising the scenes, the character of the Narrator essentially exists as he does in the original text, taking part in dialogue with the Ushers, as well as commenting on scenes and telling the audience the story of what happened. And while that works well to a point, and creates the atmosphere of the original tale, it does lead to long passages of uninterrupted speech with little action and very few songs.

The first half, in fact, is less a musical than a play with music and even when songs come along they are often quite short and sometimes at odds with the tone of the story. Adamson’s book nicely captures the florid formality of this style of Victorian writing and Richard Lounds as the Narrator delivers the lines with a prim, almost disdainful tone that feels of the period. Yet Bottomley’s music is often quite wishy-washy, lacking the creepy overtones that should add to the growing tension in the house. And a lot of time is wasted on extraneous chatter about why Roderick doesn’t eat breakfast and his love of books, which ultimately digress from the unfolding drama.

The second half is much better as the plot begins to move along and here there is finally more music in this musical. The production feels like it moves up a gear and, in places, the songs have a more dynamic rock musical feel, emphasised by Tom Kitney’s slightly flashier lighting design, while the directors Adamson and Phil Croft create some tension and moments of fear at the climax.

The performers clearly relish their roles but have a mix of ability. Lounds is a sympathetic lead and has plenty of dialogue to give the audience insight into his character, while Eloise Kay’s drippy and giggling Madeline has a powerful voice. Cameron Harle gives a memorable performance as Roderick Usher who is introduced like a drug-addled ageing rock-star sitting on a throne in his mansion, while oddly dressed in modern velvet and leathers, unlike his firmly Victorian co-stars. Harle’s performance captures the eccentricity of Roderick, making him convincingly menacing, while he channels Rex Harrison in virtually speaking his lyrics.

Adamson and Bottomley’s musical has plenty of potential and, while it mimics the language of Allen Poe’s story, the songs need some work to better tie them lyrically and stylistically to the story. At just over two hours it may be quicker to read the book as this tale meanders a little too often and for a little too long, so some cuts to the text, particularly in the first half, would make it a cleaner experience for an audience.

Runs until 5 November 2016 | Image: Elisha Adamson

Review Overview

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Plenty of potential

User Rating: 3.07 ( 3 votes)

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