I have always found Edgar Allan Poe’s writing to be as eclectic as it is melancholy, as he dips his proverbial toes and literal pen nibs into different genres as a means of experimenting with the ideas of horror, thriller, and mystery. The end result of such trope-hopping is a collection of morbid tales of twitching birds, bloody corpses, and tortured tell-tale hearts that, when bound together, represent the newborn American literary identity in the 19th century as something morbid, morose, and, most importantly, entertaining. Pretentious analysis of the stories themselves aside, this new musical, by emerging musical theatre company Argosy Arts Company, is just as entertaining, however just as scattered and unsure of its footing. I came away having had an enjoyable time, but unsure as to what the theme of it all was as it skittered from poignant reminiscings on lost love, to tortured masquerade, to deconstructive metatheatre far too quickly.
The show has a strong and immediately immersive opening as Rufus Griswold, a real-life rival of Poe, commits to ruining the reputation of the now-dead author; to claim fortune, and the last word, for himself as he seizes Poe’s old house. However, as Griswold cynically continues to shun Poe’s work as shallow fiction, the house itself begins to turn on him and reveal his own madness.
The bulk of the performance features scenes of discussion on the man behind the pages as Griswold and a colleague debate on the effectiveness of Poe’s writing, the ethics of romanticising emotional trauma in fiction, and the distinction between madness and nervousness that is a recurring point of tension throughout the narrative. These scenes are patchworked together by musical renditions of some of Poe’s most loved works, such as The Raven and The House of Usher (the entitled fan in me wishes there was a version of The Cask of Amontillado: what I wouldn’t give for a musical number about bricking up an old friend in a cellar).
These singing story-telling interludes are the best aspect of the show, performed by a talented ensemble that imbues these moments with heart and charm. The skill of the entire cast shines through, as they are charismatic and dynamic to watch. Such an impressive company makes this a work worth seeing, and the company worth keeping an eye on. Particular praise has to go to the live musicians who performed a fantastic score which captured the tension and bittersweet romance of such moody, miserable tales of sick waifish women and people being buried alive.
Unfortunately, the conclusion is bemusingly metatheatrical, suddenly uprooting the Gothic grimness from any sense of concrete reality and dumping it into nervous – or perhaps mad – territory as Griswold’s grasp on the estate begins to slip. It feels narratively thematic, sure, but I’m left wanting more. And I really do hope the show becomes more; it has such potential and an intriguing concept that I can’t help but dream about what could be created with a bigger West End budget (which I think it deserves) and a longer run time to tweak the narrative pacing. It is undoubtedly a fun show put together with genuine passion, and performed with emphatic and brilliant enthusiasm, but towards the end somewhat loses itself, like Poe, in its hurried melodrama.
‘The House of Edgar’ is performed at Venue 209 (Emerald Theatre), on Greenside @ Nicholson Square, August 3-11, 13-18, 20-25. Times may vary.
Tickets are available at the Box Office, or online at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/house-of-edgar