Downstage Theatre
April 29-May 7 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

THE OPENING gambit of A Most Outrageous Humbug sets the scene for the entire play. Artfully designed piles of books and sombre mood lighting (Marcus McShane) form the backdrop to Edgar Allan Poe’s parents’, Elizabeth (Jean Sergent) and David (Adam Donald) ferocious and theatrical argument which ends in tears and blood.

Top hats, velvet waistcoats, silk cravats hoop skirts, and fortified corsets (gorgeously designed by Dawa Devereux) hint at the constriction of fierce passions. Meanwhile the scenario is underpinned by Tane Upjohn Beatson at the piano with its exposed hammers and strings playing dramatic, morose music. This promises to be an American Gothic Romance with dark undercurrents of violence and passion, and boy, does it deliver.

Told through a mix of Poe’s essays, poems and stories woven with imagined events, the play purports to be a biography of the man. As a lesson to anyone who ever wants to know how much of an author’s work is biographical – it’s simply impossible to know. Three Spoon Theatre under the direction of Charlotte Bradley have created a work which shows a man spiralling into madness and sabotaging his entire literary career, losing himself in stories and wine. You might just as well worry about their state of mind.

Edgar Allan Poe became an orphan at two, the inference being he had no early stabilising factors in his life. Driven by thronging passion – ‘his ardour was matched only by his ambition’ – he hoped academia might rein in his wild excesses. We are told this by Thomas McGrath narrating as Poe from the sidelines, becoming increasingly involved in the action as the play progresses. The play both shows and tells with Ralph McCubbin Howell acting as Poe throughout.

Poe writes every moment available between his studies to the detriment of them both, and becomes romantically involved with Frances Osgood (Adrianne Roberts). His rival in love and literature is the ‘sweaty and creepy but persistent and rich’ Rufus Griswold (Ed Watson). Poe may be ‘talented and passionate’ but he also has a wild disregard for propriety reflected in his appearance. Howell plays him as explosive, which leaves him with nowhere to go as his tempo is feverish from the beginning.

The journey into madness is marked by a number of well-scripted scenes. There is a poetry reading between Poe and Griswold at which Griswold suggests ‘The ladies will enjoy our academic duelling’. There is Poe’s peculiarly abstract proposal to his 13-year-old cousin Virginia ‘Sissy’ Eliza Celmm (played with wide-eyed gaucheness by Alex Lodge) using his macabre stories as a form of courtship – ‘I liked your poetry better’. Sissy’s amusing wittering suits the young girl’s naivety, but her chilly defence is a little modern – ‘I may not be an adult, but at least I’m not a prat.’

There is the costume party book launch at which Elmira Shelton (Jean Sergent) dresses as the author – is it a sincere form of flattery or grist to his burgeoning paranoia? Meanwhile a mysterious hooded figure, seen only by Sissy, stalks the party, which cannot bode well. In orchestrated breaks from the party, guests partner up into formal dance and corpses return to life.

As Poe reads his stories we are frequently deceived into questioning what is reality and given unheralded glimpses into his manic mind. ‘What a gift to tap into the psyche of a blood-thirsty psycho so effortlessly’. He applies for an editing position only to be interviewed by characters from his short story Doctor Tarr (Adam Donald) and Professor Fether (Jean Sergent) in a show-stealing scene.

This is a brilliantly written script and hangs so tightly together that it is hard to believe it was devised collaboratively. The colours of red (the consumptive blood that claims so many characters) black (the raven feather; the relentless gloom) and white (the purity and innocence of Sissy; the bleached bones of his tales) are woven into the tapestry of the narrative. Death unifies all from his mother’s untimely demise to his own wrestling with himself (literally) in the final scene. It’s not exactly joyful, but it is triumphant, and a worthy inclusion in the Pick of the Fringe.