Ideally Edgar Allan Poe’s works should be read in the dead of night, in an armchair by a crackling fire with the slow tap of wintry branches against the window. All credit to David Crawford then for performing his one-hander about Poe’s final hours in a unevenly lit bar with no more than a few feet to move about in, at quarter past one in the afternoon. It is testament to his skill that, by and large, he pulls it off.
Crawford cuts an impressive figure as the dying Poe, ravaged by years of alcoholism and loss. “I have become insane, with long periods of horrible sanity” he announces at the beginning of the play and there is no doubt that Crawford successfully inhabits the tortured soul, his narrowed eyes scanning the audience in search of invisible enemies.
The title is slightly misleading- this is not so much a show about Poe’s mysterious death from unknown causes as a rambling reflection by Poe upon his life and the loss of the women he loved. There is some exceptionally evocative writing here, masterfully blending lines from Poe with original writing. Occasionally in the lyricism some of the clarity of the story is lost; those unfamiliar with Poe’s life would do well to quickly look it up before going for fear of being left behind.
Interspersed in Poe’s life story are some of his poems. Fans of Poe are unlikely to be disappointed; all of the classics are here, recited by Crawford with a keen ear for Poe’s rhythm and imagery. Those unfamiliar with Poe may find the poems rather long and wonder quite how they fit into the broader narrative of his life story.
The joy of Poe is its glorious overblown grotesqueness. It’s unfortunate then that the production didn’t wholly capture this. A shiver ran down my spine during a story of live entombment but across the piece as a whole there were insufficient thrills. I wanted to tingle with Gothic goosebumps but instead got the odd pimple. Crawford was fighting an uphill battle against the venue but he could have helped himself by not pacing like a caged bear. Doubtless he was trying to convey the turmoil in Poe’s mind but, combined with delivering much of the second half looking at a point above the audience’s heads, it broke the all-enveloping bond between storyteller and audience which is needed for effective supernatural horror.
At the end of the show Crawford explained that the piece was a work-in-progress and sought suggestions as to how to improve it. A brave and humble move from an established actor and one which uses the Free Fringe to its best advantage, testing work before an audience who can choose how much to pay. “Poe’s Last Night- Free” is not yet the Gothic nightmare it needs to become but it shows terrifying promise.