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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Nevermore
Barbican Theatre  July 2010

The amazingly audacious and inventive Catalyst Theatre from Canada offers what amounts to a musical fantasia on the life and myth of Edgar Allan Poe, and if it doesn't all work, the good parts are so much more exciting than what a more cautious company could have produced that you are willing to pay the price of the occasional missteps.

Catalyst and its writer/composer/director Jonathan Christenson employ all the tools of theatricality to tell their often askew tales - you may remember The House Of Pootsie Plunket several years ago - and in this case use rhymed narrative, songs, dance, mime, broad characterisations, bizarrely cartoonish costumes and some surprisingly subtle touches to bring alive what may or may not be the true story of the doom-ridden American poet.

A mainly silent Scott Shpeley plays Poe while the other six members of the cast play Everyone Else and take turns narrating in speech and song. The story is an almost comically dark one, and the point that it might almost be one of Poe's macabre short stories is not missed.

Any time something good seems about to happen to Poe, an accident, enemy or reversal of fortune appears on cue; and any time he begins to form an emotional attachment to someone, you can count on a tubercular cough announcing the impending end of that hope and an addition to the body count.

And yet the relentlessly perky narrators, the quirky characterisations, and the sometimes quite excellent songs keep things moving forward, particularly in the second half. (One of the production's weaknesses is that the first act, which only gets Poe as far as age eight or so, is slow moving, with mainly recitatif-style music whose drone risks being hypnotic and even soporific.)

Things perk up significantly after the interval, with a quite lovely song accompanying Poe's doomed (of course) romance with Elmira Royster, the sequence somehow made even sweeter by the fact that the lovers are the nineteenth-century equivalents of modern teenage Goths. And a later high-energy anthem in which Poe declares his determination to grab some joy out of life would not be out of place in Sweeney Todd or Les Miserables.

Beyond Shpeley's Poe, the rest of the multi-role-playing cast are deliberately interchangeable, though Shannon Blanchet's sweetly twisted Elmira and Beth Graham's sweetly dim Sissy Clemm (another doomed love) make strong impressions.

Nevermore is not for all tastes - you have to be eager for risk-taking theatrical ambition and imagination, and willing to accept the occasional stumble along the way. If that's you, then this is very much your sort of thing.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Nevermore - Catalyst 2010