Review: The Black Cat, Threedumb Theatre
4.0Overall Score

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When Edgar Allan Poe wrote his twisted Gothic parable “The Black Cat” 178 years ago, he could hardly have imagined that one day that slim volume would be beamed live around the world on electronic devices known as computers. Yet a year into the coronavirus lockdown, this is where we find ourselves.

The script is an unabridged version of Poe’s short story, read out by our narrator (Stephen Smith). There is something deliciously incongruous about the whole affair, with language so incredibly archaic and ornate spoken out through our devices and into our 21st Century living rooms. 

It tells the story of an alcoholic driven to madness and violence by his addiction. A slippery and unreliable narrator, he becomes transfixed by hate for a pet cat that he shares with his wife. It could be an analogy for misogyny in the context of a loveless marriage, or otherwise simply an exploration of a dark part of the psyche that exists in all of us. Whatever the case, the narrator’s hatred for ‘the beast’ regresses until he totally loses his mind, haunted by a feline spectre. 

The show is performed live at The Space’s 1859 building in London, which is an old Victorian church converted into a theatre. This makes a fresh and exciting change from the mass of recent Zoom plays that have appeared of late which are simply recordings of shows that can be played at any time. Threedumb Theatre go to great lengths to try and recreate the actuality of an actual theatrical space. The whole show is filmed using one shot, and that shot is invariably up close on the narrator’s face, providing an intense visual insight into his internal mania as he runs about.

The show makes excellent use of the ecclesiastical space. Smith – who also directs – is seen at various moments inside the main knave, outside by the street, upstairs and back downstairs. At one point, he tinkles on a piano. At another point, when his house is burning down, vast projections of flames are seen licking up an interior wall, and we see him stumbling out through orange-lit dry ice into a courtyard. 

Smith gives the part his all. At first the narrator is shown writing his memoirs in a prison cell, which begs the question of how much of his tale is really true, and how much is simply a guilty creation subconsciously devised to compensate for his wrongdoing. Later, as the story develops, he will be seen on all fours, clambering and slobbering around like a cat. The weight of the play largely rests solely on his shoulders and he does a great job at sustaining momentum, with a booming voice that is able to provide Poe’s words with suitable gravitas. 

The Black Cat is the story of a man, fashioned in the image of God, brought down by the ‘brute beast’ of the cat. It reflects serious Victorian anxieties around abusing nature and overreaching. There is always a risk with Zoom plays of becoming distracted, such is the difficulty of performing when the viewer is so far from the action. Yet despite this fact, as well as the archaic language and old fashioned story, not once did my focus waver.

The Black Cat is playing online until 26th March. For more information, see The Space’s website.