The Black Cat (Online review)

The Black Cat (Online review)

During the development of digital theatre over the course of the last twelve months there have been many attempts to innovate within this new art form. What started out as a group of people sitting at home reading a script on screen soon became passe and theatre makers started to look for new angles such as adding costumes, props and background scenery. Immersive and interactive events presented online have become popular and broadcasts from empty theatres have been attempted with varying degrees of success. Above all the worlds of film and theatre have gradually started to merge until in productions such as The Picture Of Dorian Gray the two have become almost indistinguishable. Right at the forefront of the innovation throughout has been Threedumb Theatre, which has been perfecting its own signature style and whose latest piece The Black Cat opened last night.

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This is the fourth in their growing collection of horror based tales following last year’s The Tell Tale Heart, Within and The Strange Case Of Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde. All of these were presented as solo character monologues and using a single tracking shot style as the pieces were captured and initially broadcast live. The Black Cat takes the same approach, yet is bolder than any of its predecessors. The first two of the quartet were shot in a suburban living room and the third was filmed on an empty stage in a venue. For this play, we are again back inside a real theatre space except this time the whole building is put to use giving us, in effect, a promenade performance. But in a digital twist, instead of the audience moving from area to area, we sit still while the camera tracks the actor from the usual performance space to the venue’s corridors, the upstairs bar (pleasingly rebranded with a nod to the previous production as the Tell Tale Tavern), the toilets, outside to the grounds and even, initially, across the road from the building. This is the atmospheric The Space, a former Presbyterian church in London’s Docklands, which for this particular show lends a whole world of creepiness to the proceedings. It’s an inspired choice and the production makes excellent use of the 1850s venue, its gothic style features heightened by the many impressive lighting effects of Eddie Stephens.

The other point of departure from the previous shows is the inclusion of a second performer. Michaela Bennison takes on the role of the protagonist’s wife a mostly silent (and silenced) figure in this twisted tale from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Renowned for his own substance abuse, the author gives us the tale of a one-time animal lover who becomes an alcoholic prone to melancholy and obsession interspersed with fits of extreme violence which he visits upon some unfortunate felines and eventually his spouse. The protagonist’s inner torment and outward manifestations of viciousness are superbly conveyed by Stephen Smith who gives his best performance yet in a mammoth monologue of Poe’s distinctive prose. The actor invests the character with a manic energy and a sense of self loathing as he goes back over the horrific events while waiting in the condemned cell. While this early revelation removes any element of “will he get away with it?” from proceedings it is in the execution of the piece (if you’ll pardon the obvious pun) that Smith excels, for he not only performs but directs with a clarity of what this piece needs to bring it alive.

I have followed the development of Threedumb’s online work with mounting respect for their increasingly daring approach and their ability to create atmospheric content on what is presumably a minimal budget. Smith and co are next looking to produce a version of Phantom Of The Opera in the Edwardian splendour of the Watford Palace Theatre. This will be based on the original 1910 novel though slightly updated to post World War 1 and I’m sure it will be pushing at the boundaries of the possible once again. Meanwhile The Black Cat continues its short run of livestreams – catch this horrific tale if you can… and if you dare!

N.B. No animals were harmed in the making of this production!

The Black Cat is being livestreamed this week from The Space – click here

For a recent interview with Stephen Smith about the work of the company click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

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