The notion of a man becoming particularly attached to a handsome black cat may initially feel a familiar experience, especially as around 3.2 million UK households have welcomed a pet into their household since the start of the pandemic. However, this disturbing tale of an animal lover turned alcoholic is no heart-warming feel-good fable, but is instead filled with the dark Gothic tropes you can expect from a story originally penned by Edgar Allan Poe.
An ambitious and exciting production
Knowing we were unable to visit The Space arts centre in London in person, Threedumb Theatre took full advantage of the livestream format to bring their audience on an access all areas tour. Staged as a promenade performance, the troupe invited you to accompany them onto the stage, into the bar, through dark corridors and who knows elsewhere, until you became drawn into the disorientating reality of The Black Cat’s unreliable protagonist.
Eddie Stephens’s clever lighting, combined with the cinematic style of direction from Stephen Smith, themed each scene with dramatic intention. Bold reds, blues and spotlights aimed to convey feelings such as anger, fear, and confusion. The surreal effect of these bright choices helped to frame the story as a Gothic allegory and also mimicked the unconventional and aggressive nature of the protagonist’s deteriorating mind.
The protagonist, played by Stephen Smith, would frequently speak directly, up-close to the camera, adding a sense of claustrophobic intimacy that would be difficult to convey on stage. When watched alone in a darkened room, it certainly added to the fear factor. However, the live camerawork was noticeably shaky throughout. Although this often added atmosphere to the production, it would occasionally become too unsteady and unfocused. This wasn’t helped by the quality of the camera being more home movie than IMAX. Nonetheless, the single shot filming technique by David Smith was impressive, especially considering the scope of the task and size of the venue.
Stephen Smith held his own whilst miming interactions with a menagerie of animals – most notably a dog on a lead – but his theatrical style of performance didn’t wholly translate onto camera. From the very beginning of the performance his energy levels were frenetic, which left little room for the character’s hysteria to fully develop. The fast pace of the production made for lively viewing, but also meant that enough time was not always given to reflect on the acts of extreme violence that needed to punctuate and give structure to the story.
It’s also unfortunate that Michaela Bennison’s cameo role was not made bigger. On stage for only brief moments, her presence could have been used more thoughtfully in order to provide further contrast to Stephen Smith’s frenzied monologue.
Threedumb Theatre’s creative mindset is obvious and credit must go to the whole team, especially stage manager Duncan Riches, for being able to pull off such a complex staging live without noticeable fault. Although it never quite reaches the psychological depths you wish it would, The Black Cat is an ambitious and exciting production that does it best to both replicate and enhance the live theatre experience.