Writer: Philip Holyman, from the short story by Edgar Allen Poe
Director: Gareth Nicholls
Reviewer: George Attwell Gerhards
Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic short story is the inspiration for this fresh adaptation from Little Earthquake. The Tell-Tale Heart describes the events leading up to the imprisonment and sectioning of Simon Flanagan (Laurence Saunders) a private nurse who, with an over-acuteness of the senses, struggles through life with his patient Bernard in his near silent house, silent but for one thing.
Director Gareth Nicholls has taken a cleverly inspired choice by focusing his adaptation on one key aspect of Poe’s novella – Simon’s superhuman hearing – and makes much of the innovative use of sound provided by sound designer Iain Armstrong, who remains on stage throughout as Simon’s Doctor. Armstrong alone is worth watching, as he commands his sound desk, juggling fruit, laboratory equipment and kitchen appliances making sure to hit the more than 200 sound cues. The results are, often, extraordinary. From the bigger set piece moments (the bloody dismembering of a body, for example) down to the subtle nuances that pepper the piece (footsteps on a floorboard; the creak of an opening door) the effect it leaves on its sometimes squirming audience is profound. Similarly, in his rôle as Doctor, Armstrong is perfectly constrained, his soft Scottish brogue coming through the tinny microphone never detracts from the main events of the piece, which belong to Saunders’ Simon.
Saunders performance is commendable in what is, almost, a one man show. Quietly asserting his authority on the stage his storytelling and physicality are to be admired, particularly as he keeps focus and energy throughout. His pattern of speech at times feels at odds with the dialogue, but this may be down to Holyman’s script, one gets the feeling he’s not quite sure whether his adaptation remains set in the 19th Century or not.
The biggest flaw in this piece however is when the two performers come together. Nicholls has Simon address his Doctor face on, meaning that for large amounts of the play the audience are only treated to a leading man in profile. At times this makes you wish that Armstrong wasn’t on stage at all, which is a shame considering just how entertaining the live sound can be. Similarly, when Simon acknowledges the Doctor as the source of the sounds (encouraging him to chime the clock, for example) the illusion of Armstrong as the Doctor is broken.
That said, this is still an impressive production, managing to construct a world with almost no props (besides Armstrong’s array of toys only a single chair is used) and Nicholls’ lighting design is effective in its simplicity (beams of light create corridors; a moody red to hint at the eponymous heart) which is all testament to the real achievement here, the incredible use of sound to replace what we cannot see.
Reviewed on 6th February 2014, and on tour