first night

DDF - The House of Usher

Izzie Price reviews the last DDF offering the immersive 'House of Usher'

I must confess that I had read the script previous to seeing the show, so I did have some idea in mind of what to expect. However, even this prior knowledge could not have prepared me for what Empty Shop and the cast of the House of Usher had in store.

Myself and the rest of the audience members were met by a surly doorkeeper (Dominic McGovern) who checked our names off a list and gave us all a National Trust pass. I instantly felt this welcome could have been done more neatly – if indeed we were all visiting a National Trust property, which was the idea, there would have been far more of an orderly queue and some sort of structure, rather than people floating around not being sure what to do.

Anyway, this did not dampen our spirits and we were soon escorted up the stairs of Empty Shop by Annie, the usher, played convincingly by Ellie Gauge. At the top of the stairs was the tragic Madeline (Georgina Armfield) whom I believe lived in the House we were “visiting.” Armfield went on to deliver a stunning monologue about the tragedies of her life; at least, that’s what it sounded like. Unfortunately, I was trapped right in the middle of the crowd and so did not manage to see her face throughout the entirety of her monologue. This use of space could be something to consider for the future – it is a shame for some audience members to miss out on (what sounded like) such a brilliant performance simply because of awkward staging. However, Armfield was more than a match for this, and managed to capture my attention just through using her voice.  It must be said that Armfield remained beautifully in character throughout the rest of the production, skilfully moving it forward by guiding audience members to different rooms all the while maintaining her manic, wide-eyed stare.

Once we entered the House itself, it was chaos. I do not mean that in any sort of negative way – I believe that was the atmosphere the directors (Alison Middleton and Polly Norkett) were trying to create, and they certainly succeeded. Audience members were dragged off by various members of the cast into all of Empty Shop’s various rooms and were forced to sit and listen to their stories – Middleton and Norkett have done a wonderful job at creating an atmosphere full of tortured inhabitants who feel a desperate need for their stories to be told.  A particular highlight for me was the “bathroom scene” – I was dragged into Empty Shop’s tiny bathroom with just one other audience member by William Wilson (Peter Hucker) who went on to describe his descent into insanity through his obsession with his reflection. This reflection was personified by the Altar Ego (Rosie Hodsdon) who suddenly leapt out from behind a curtain mid-monologue, making me jump about a foot in the air. I was genuinely scared and wanted to leave the bathroom as soon as possible – which I believe was the intention – although, this may have been due to the close proximity of the space more than anything else.

A stand out performer for me was Tristan Robinson as Toby Dammit. He managed to capture the truth behind his performance and was completely believable, and was, for me, the saddest character of all, as he obsessively tried to convince audience members to play his “game” while trying to maintain his outward exterior of bravado.

I could write much, much more about this extraordinary production. There is so much to be admired, and I feel it should certainly be developed further, not least because of the beautiful and elegant writing. The only word of caution I would suggest to Middleton and Norkett would be to carefully consider the point behind the scenes. Some of them were beautifully done, but I wasn’t entirely sure why we were being forced to listen to them – for example, the story of the Lady of the Oval Portrait (Claire Forster); it went on for too long and I left her room not really understanding what it was I was supposed to have learnt from her.

However, this is an epic production and one that should be admired. To say it was ambitious would be a huge understatement, and Middleton and Norkett should be proud of what they have achieved. 

12 February 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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