10 July 2015

The Fall Of The House Of Usher, and more, produced an exciting evening at the White Bear Theatre

There is so much cultural stuff going on in London (obviously) so it is hard to find out about it all, let alone see anything but a small fraction of it all. One of the ways that I find things to see and do is to track a relatively small number of venues, about twenty, through their email newsletters. One of these venues is the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, which is how I found out about this performance The Fall Of The House Of Usher.

I knew the story of The Fall Of The House Of Usher and had seen the 1960 film starring Vincent Price price many times, often as part of horror seasons on BBC 2 in the 1970's. However, I had no idea that there was an opera version and even less of an idea that something like this had been concocted by Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator, despite having bought several VdGG and Peter Hammill albums along the way and having seen VdGG in concert several times. The picture above is of the album cover.

Seeing The Fall Of The House Of Usher was obviously mandatory.

Also mandatory is going The Dog House, a pub close by, for something to eat and a beer beforehand. The White Bear is a pub too but they do not do food there so my usual routine, i.e. I have done it twice now, is to have a coffee on arrival at the White Bear and then a beer, an "Ordinary", in the interval.

The White Bear Theatre is something like a cave behind the pub that is entered via a narrow door in a dark corner that first takes you into the box office area and then into the "P" shaped stage (the "P" actually faces the other way). There is seating along the two straight lines of the "P".

The Fall Of The House Of Usher started with the sound of a guitar but no guitarist. Eventually one appeared through a stage door dragging the long guitar lead with him. This was Jamie West the adapter and main performer of the piece.

The guitar proved to be just the overture and Jamie played all the rest of the music on a piano almost hidden at the back of the low lit small stage. That music reminded me of VdGG with its thick chords and Jamie's vocals had the same tone as Hammill so this was familiar territory for me. That was understandable as VdGG always had a good touch of the Gothic about them and I suspect it was that which had led Hammill to Usher originally.

Jamie West was joined by Aliyah Keshani who sang the role of the buried alive Lady Madeline on a couple of songs.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher was dark, brooding and magnificent. Exactly like I hoped it would be.

We then had an unexpected interval (time for that beer) before seeing two more performance. By "unexpected" I mean I had not looked at the event listing close enough to work out what was going on.

Claire Dowie gave us a couple of comic songs and comic monologues in her energetic and engaging style.

One of the monologues, Arsehammers!, addressed the topic of Alzheimer's as seen through the eyes of a child, hence the title. The other, Random Subject, poked fun at Facebook in a subtle and somewhat disturbing way comparing friending people on Facebook with following them on the street and going through their bins.

Monologues are not a form that I was that familiar with, despite having grown up with Joyce Grenfell on the TV, and I was pleased with how well they worked. When so much of comedy thrives on one-liners and others see that as an extended form it was good to hear long pieces that were laugh-out-loud funny and also very human.

The final piece was another monologue, this time from Martin Stewart, who does not seem to have a website!

This was long and strange story called Peter and the Actinoids, inspired by the last group of elements in the Periodic Table. These start with No. 96 Actinium which is where they get their name from; they are also called actinides.

The story was driven by its strangeness and was helped by some repetition, particularly of the names of the actinoids, which gave it almost a song structure, but that would be to overemphasise a point.

Several of the comments made during the telling of the story (or were they actually part of the story?) suggested that editorial suggestions had been made during rehearsals and that these had been ignored. I agreed with the artist more than the editor and I thought that all of the ideas worked, though obviously some worked better than others.

Martin's performance style also suggested that this was something of a try-out session but, again, I suspect that this was more act than fact.

An argument could be made for saying that Peter and the Actinoids was an inconsequential and incoherent story told incompetently but from my perspective it all worked very well and I loved it.

I think it is fair to say that it was the least approachable of the three acts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with difficult acts, so while I would not have changed anything in the act I would have changed the order of the three acts putting this on first and Usher in the middle to separate the two monologues, but all this is just me personal preferences and the whole evening was very enjoyable the way it was.

The summary of all that is I went to see an opera that I knew nothing about and also ended up seeing two performances that I did not know that I had booked and I enjoyed them all immensely.

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