Providence, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Tom Brocklehurst

We discover H P Lovecraft, cult horror writer from Providence, Rhode Island, standing on the banks of the Providence River in 1910 threatening to drown himself. In an It’s A Wonderful Life-style intervention, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe (Dominic Allen) arrives to try to talk him around. We then flash forwards through the rest of Lovecraft’s life in this biographical comedy, with Poe helping him along the way.

It sounds like a strange idea for a play, but it’s a suitably bonkers device for a show about a weird man who wrote very weird tales.

Lovecraft lived with his mother (played by Allen) for a lot of his adult life before gaining some small-scale recognition amongst amateur journalists and horror writers. As a profoundly strange and timid man, whose mannerisms and shyness almost precluded him from society, this sudden rise to notoriety must have come as quite a shock. A move to New York followed, which he fervently despised, and then a return to Providence where he died at the age of 46.

Simon Maeder captures Lovecraft perfectly – with his tall, slender frame and permanently startled face, he brings a gangly intensity to the part. Allen is superb as the ensemble player, leaping around the stage cracking jokes; cosying up to Lovecraft as the friendly Poe, then embarrassing him as his possessive mother Susan.

This is an incredibly funny show. The two actors are brilliant physical performers, who squeeze every nuance of comedy from the strange moments in Lovecraft’s life – and believe me, there are a few of them.

They even get away with making a joke out of his long-standing racist views – with a screech from the sound design and a grimace to the audience every time he makes an off-colour comment. Eventually Lovecraft sees the error of his ways, but it certainly takes some skill to deliver that sort of material without completely alienating the audience.

The sound design is fantastic throughout – the horror sections are often genuinely horrifying –and the rumbling trains above the Vaults tunnels add to the atmosphere of this show.

I know very little about Lovecraft, and I love this show. It’s a masterclass in physical comedy, and the performers perfectly throw the weird life of Lovecraft into sharp, comic relief.

Providence runs through 4 February.

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