First published in The Times, Friday October 26 2018
The elevator pitch for Clear White Light is certainly attention-grabbing: a contemporary retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher set in a psychiatric unit and featuring the songs of Alan Hull of Lindisfarne.
The production — the first to be mounted by the new artistic director of Live, Joe Douglas — is an odd hybrid of enjoyable, if hackneyed, gothic drama, scripted by Paul Sirett, interspersed with dynamically staged musical numbers performed by a live band alongside members of the acting ensemble. The idiosyncratic premise makes sense in the light of Hull’s experiences of working at St Nicholas Hospital in Newcastle as a trainee psychiatric nurse in the Sixties. He escaped into Poe’s short stories during quiet night shifts.
At the heart of Sirett’s play is a trainee mental health nurse, Alison (Bryony Corrigan), who embarks on a placement at St Nick’s under the mentorship of Rod (Joe Caffrey). As she learns the ropes, Alison becomes increasingly drawn into the story of Rod’s twin sister, the one-time force of nature Maddie (Charlie Hardwick), who has ended up as a long-term patient at the hospital.
Pic: RICH KENWORTHY
It is no accident that the story is being told in the 70th-anniversary year of the founding of the NHS. Hull, who died in 1995, was a passionate socialist, and Sirett’s script contains references to cuts in funding and pleas for better understanding and openness about mental health issues. Yet the staging consistently undermines any attempt at seriousness. The dramatic action is shot through with Chamber of Horrors-style effects, including creaking doorways, ghostly offstage howls and fierce lightning flashes illuminating Neil Warmington’s haunted crypt set of brick walls and barred windows.
Pic: RICH KENWORTHY
Much more involving, and at times truly haunting, is the staging of Hull’s evocative songs of mental frailty and resilience, which are beautifully arranged by Billy Mitchell and Ray Laidlaw, the show’s musical directors, and tightly performed by the band, fronted by the impressive Hardwick. Douglas’s unfussy treatment of the starkly poetic Lady Eleanor, Passing Ghosts and A Walk in the Sea are far more likely to raise the hairs on the back of your neck than salacious horror tropes.