Providence, Rhode Island. One of the first cities in America, with a long English heritage – and the place where today, our protagonist has decided to end it all. As he plunges his head into the river, however, the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe appears… and Howard Philips Lovecraft shows us not his death, but his life. From his parents' committals to institutions, his grandfather's lesson and his publishing rejections, through to his estranged marriage and many correspondences, his story returns again and again to Providence.
As the audience files in to the misty cavern of a performance space, an agitated man sits on a red armchair, caressing a large old tome while a record plays in the background. The eerie atmosphere is broken only by a parody ghost – in a white sheet with eye holes – standing next to the chair. With the protagonist underwater, the ghost of Poe whips off his sheet and treats us to a musical introduction. This scene of wild contrasts, anachronistic flashes and somewhat macabre humour sets the pace of the whole piece; through a mix of flashbacks, scenes from his stories and ghostly narration we are led through the course of Lovecraft's life and works.
Simon Maeder certainly looks the part of Lovecraft. With a long face, and even longer unwieldy legs, he sympathetically captures this strange, awkward man and gifted storyteller. Dominic J Allen, meanwhile, plays all his parts well, switching between overbearing mother and literary spectre with a mere flick of a bed sheet, providing excellent balance and support.
This is no Christmas Carol, but the inclusion of three ghosts does allow for a structure that shows both the effect of Lovecraft's bizarre upbringing and his lasting legacy. The flow of the plot, skipping between reality and otherworldliness, is brilliantly pitched. Mirroring the mental illness and horror in both his life and works, there are moments when it's a struggle to decide what is real; whether you have just slipped into the next story or are still in a flashback, or indeed both woven together.
Overall Providence gives an excellent sense of both the chronology of Lovecraft's stories and how he drew inspiration from his experience, balancing interesting and informative biographical details with trademark weird tales. Generally the scenes with Poe's ghost provide good continuity and exposition, though the ghost's breaking of the fourth wall, despite raising laughs, damaged my immersion in the piece without adding anything.
I was concerned at first with the blasé treatment of Lovecraft's attempted suicide, which is presented as just something he would do casually in a fit of pique. On reflection though, while this comic script may not treat the subject with any gravitas, it is not mocked or glossed over. Indeed, the piece does not shy away from Lovecraft's faults, and is much the better for it. While focussing primarily on his more Anglophilic and anti-Semitic prejudices it acknowledges others, and the scene dealing with his works' posthumous publications is excellent.
Providence is an engaging look at the life and works of HP Lovecraft. Celebrating his talent, pitying his circumstances and not shying away from his faults, these two actors do justice to the life of one of the horror greats.