“One Man Poe’s strong points are definitely the sounds—not just Smith’s flexible voice skills, but also Joseph Furey’s music and sound design”
The London Horror Festival is once again bringing chills and thrills across the metropolitan area, even if the pandemic means a pared down festival this year. One Man Poe, performed by Stephen Smith at the suitably spooky Space in London’s East End, is one of several offerings for the 2021 Halloween season. It’s hard to find a writer more accomplished in the horror genre than Edgar Allan Poe—and there’s a reason why this American nineteenth century writer is still widely read and enjoyed today, despite the archaic language, and the dictionary workout his words will give you. Based on three of Poe’s best known stories, and one very well known poem, One Man Poe is a no-brainer of a choice for the Festival by Smith and the Threedumb Theatre Company.
Nevertheless, One Man Poe is a bit of a misnomer. This piece, clocking in at one hundred and forty minutes (including the interval) is not so much a play, as a staged performance of Poe’s stories by Smith. And while Smith’s is the only voice on stage throughout the show, he is not always the only person there. Assisted by Jack Hesketh as a doctor in one story, and as a policeman in another, Smith performs The Tell-Tale Heart; The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Black Cat. The Raven, Poe’s signature poem, is the final piece that sets the seal on an evening of blood chilling revelations.
Smith does have a great voice for these kind of stories, and his presentation is appropriate, if verging on the melodramatic. But then, the Victorians did appreciate a good melodrama. Smith’s diction is clear and measured, allowing the audience to relish Poe’s language. It’s overkill, then, to project the words on the back of the stage, above the actor’s head, for the whole performance. It is a distraction the audience could do without, and dispensing with them might also allow the lighting designer (Eddie Stephens) to shine a bit more light on the proceedings on stage without obscuring the text on the wall. One Man Poe’s strong points are definitely the sounds—not just Smith’s flexible voice skills, but also Joseph Furey’s music and sound design. Kudos also to dramaturgs Amber Buttery, Amy Roberts, Jonah York and Rebecca Phythian for the thoughtful support and programme notes. But the overall effect of One Man Poe is to make one wonder if the show would not be more powerful if enjoyed at home with the lights off and the amplifiers on.
Fortunately for us, there is one livestream performance on offer, and perhaps there will be more. One Man Poe will be livestreamed on October 21st. Just the ticket for a horrifying evening at home with the family. Or, for the truly brave among you, alone.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Alya Sayer
One Man Poe
The Space until 23rd October as part of London Horror Festival 2021
“there’s plenty of wiggle room for it to be a lot slicker and a lot funnier”
In his programme notes, writer Oliver Myers cites a 2017 online argument between an alt-right youtuber who claimed that Roman Britain was not a diverse society, and Mary Beard who elegantly stepped in to point out that in fact Roman Britain was incredibly diverse, as inspiration for Aaron and Julia. And so it was that he came to write a play about the beginnings of Christianity, made thoroughly modern, full of fun anachronism and witty repartee, and indeed plenty of cultural diversity, directed by Amelia Hursey.
The Name ‘Aaron and Julia’ is a bit of a red herring as there aren’t any parts particularly smaller or larger than any other. Rather, it’s about eight characters of equal importance, varying in cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds, each working to their own agenda and yet somehow finding themselves at the same finish line: the building of a church.
From the get we’re thrown into the deep end, with quick back-and-forths between Afra (Bethany Sharp) the famous Goth courtesan, and Adelfius (Calum Robshaw) a bishop of questionable morals. Whilst they no doubt explain where and who they are, it’s all quite hard to gage without any real set, barring some hanging ivy and a couple of homemade posters behind the audience. This might be fine if they slowed down a little or worked out where to lay the stress so that the audience could understand what information was important and what was merely crosstalk.
On the other hand, the script seems to be largely exposition, only emphasised by the fact the characters do little else but stand around. Without any furniture, there’s very little opportunity for different levels even; for casually sitting down or inspecting something else on stage whilst talking or listening. Instead, everyone’s stood rather unnaturally, facing one another.
The performances themselves are full of nervous enthusiasm. Whilst the script is mostly delivered with gusto, lines are often followed by a look of fear, as though everyone was getting over terrible stage fright. There are also some long pauses where forgotten lines are tensely sought after, and some very hammy turns to the audience to deliver an already over-egged punchline. That being said, the energy and obvious eagerness of the cast suggests that by the weekend they will have smoothed some of this out, perhaps relaxing a little into the story.
This is a really interesting time in history when so much of what we now consider to be set in societal stone was still very much up in the air, for better or worse. The generous heaping of anachronism keeps the story fresh and engaging- Julia, for example, is always on her ‘tablet’, reading old messages from ex-boyfriends. And the sophisticated tyranny of the Roman empire is framed as Monty Python-esque, all with a wink and a whimper.
There’s a strong whiff of the am-dram about this production, but there’s plenty of wiggle room for it to be a lot slicker and a lot funnier. Maybe another week in the rehearsal room and we’ll be on to something.