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The Fall of the House of Usherettes

Liquid film!! How the words swam before my eyes and echoed through the smoke-rings of my mind Had I truly stumbled upon the Lost Atlantis of the liquid screen? ---- Bernard von Earlobe
Forkbeard Fantasy have been delighting audiences since 1974 with their own distinctive brand of visual theatre, specializing in ingenious ways of mixing live action with film. This revival of their 1996 show co-directed with John Tellett -- celebrating the centenary of cinema -- bears all the hallmarks of their entertaining and imaginative approach to mixed-media presentation, in a mock horror tale inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's story of a similar name.

Fanatical film archivist Bernard von Earlobe (Tim Britton) arrives at the crumbling Empire Picture Palace determined to procure by any means necessary its secret store of 'liquid film' -- a magical 'living' celluloid which is forever changing. The master of the cinema is supposedly his old schoolfriend Roderick Lilyhair de Usherette (Chris Britton) but as he is perpetually spaced out on hallucinogenic pills he is under the thumb of his three weird sisters (the Brittons plus Ed Jobling) who guard their treasure with zealous possessiveness.

In this ludicrously grand-guignol atmosphere (partly created by the wonderfully gothic set and costume designs by Penny Saunders), Earlobe wanders along the labyrinthine corridors of the Empire in search of the holy grail of liquid film, which he eventually discovers in the crypt. But will he be able to emerge with it into the outside world or will he be trapped in one of the living film loops which the sisters use for intruders?

In addition to the references to Poe, and the witchcraft of Macbeth of course, there are a plethora of cinematic allusions, including ones to Don't Look Now, The Shining and Hammer Horror, not to mention music from Psycho. In fact, Forkbeard have probably put too many diverse ingredients into their strange brew, especially as the slight story sometimes seems merely a pretext for indulging in technical wizardry -- like the two neo-classical statues holding up the Empire's ceiling, it struggles to support the burden of a full-length play.

Nonetheless, it is impossible not to be seduced by Forkbeard's theatrical inventiveness and tongue-in-cheek humour. It is no surprise that this show was originally constructed from a storyboard, with the various elements including cinematography (by Robin Thorburn), animation (by Tim Britton), puppetry, the use of a revolve, sound effects and voiceover combining in a virtuosic display of stagecraft. In addition to the hilariously fruity performances, there are some nice visual gags, such as the actors on stage seeming to jump in and out of the action on film, and the balloon-like 'pumping up' of Lilyhair's head. The link to Poe may be tenuous but only the po-faced would fail to enjoy this show.

The Fall of the House of Usherettes
Devised by Forkbeard Fantasy
Directed by Forkbeard Fantasy and John Tellett

With: Chris Britton, Tim Britton, Ed Jobling
Set and Costume Design: Penny Saunders
Cinematography: Robin Thorburn
Animation: Tim Britton
Lighting: Marcus Bartlett
Sound: Joe Bone
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no interval
A Forkbeard Fantasy production
Box Office: 020 8237 1111
Booking until 15 October at the Riverside Studios Hammersmith, then on tour to 28th January 2006 Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry 19th - 22nd October 024 76524 524 Hall for Cornwall, Truro 26th - 27th October 01872 262 466 Corn Exchange, Brighton Dome 1st - 5th November 01273 709 709 Buxton Opera House, Buxton 14th November 0845 127 2190 The Lowry, Salford Quays 16th - 19th November 0870 787 5790 Theatre by the Lake, Keswick 21st - 22nd November 01768 774411 Theatre Royal Bath, Bath 27th November 01225 448 844 Northcott Theatre, Exeter 23rd - 28th January 2006 01392 493 493
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on 10th October performance at Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, London W6 (Underground: Hammersmith)
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