Jonathan Christenson
Barbican Theatre

Production photo

Canadian company Catalyst may have manifold influences but they produce work that is truly unique. At surface level, their latest piece is a biographical, musical re-telling of the life of Edgar Allan Poe, told in rhyming verse, but that description is woefully inadequate.

Nevermore is the kind of ensemble production that looks simple and must take months or even years to devise and perfect.

It is a rather strange choice for the main Barbican stage, since the production must have started life as a small, intimate affair and has to be contained by designer Bretta Gerecke using a tiny fraction of the stage space with very clever, sometimes colourful lighting to pick out characters.

Edgar Allan Poe is now best known as the writer of macabre tales that are still popular a century and a half after his early death. His life is equally dark, seemingly everyone that he loved having been blighted by consumption, madness or, in some cases, a terrible combination of the two afflictions.

Poe was orphaned by the age of eight and then lost a loving stepmother long before achieving his majority. Other family members and loves went the same way, so that it is no surprise that his thoughts turned to fictional horrors.

Strangely and bravely, creator/director/composer Jonathan Christenson largely opts to concentrate on the life rather than the writings, which means that the evening feels longer than it should with a 2¼ hour running time.

The attractions of Catalyst's work lie far more in the form than the content. Christenson has lovingly put together so many different elements to make up a memorable performance.

The music that he has composed owes much to Brecht and Weill, with a touch of Nick Cave thrown in. This is used both to illuminate and dryly narrate the life.

The appearance is equally important, with the multi-talented, seven-strong cast looking like refugees from a scary children's tale, possibly drawn by Tim Burton. Their hair appears rigidly artificial, while hats are extreme and clothes eccentric with black de rigueur, as one might expect given the subject matter.

These are then supported by startling images generated by a feverish mind, though whether that belongs to Poe or Christenson is not always clear. Typically, the mini-monsters have gruesome, oversized animal's heads.

This look is then emphasised by stylised but carefully choreographed movement which ensures that viewers will end the visit feeling as if they have just had a childish nightmare.

Despite a tendency to drag a little before the interval, Nevermore is well worth a try for anyone in thrall to E A Poe, dark, edgy musicals or physical theatre of the highest quality.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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