Review: The Tell Tale Heart @ Lichfield Garrick

Adapting short stories for any medium is a thankless task. In films it is easier, and with a lot of work and rewriting a six page short story can become a full length film, as in the recent adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret life of Walter Mitty, but on the stage it is even more treacherous.

So, it is hats off to Little Earthquakes for their stage revival of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart.

The master of the gothic macabre has had one of his more famous pieces transformed into a stage production of some invention. Philip Holyman has updated the original story, to include characterisation that we would all know and recognise, as well as references to triple glazing, and thick carpets.

In the original an unnamed protagonist is telling the story that led to a murder. In this adaptation we are never sure whether the murder is real, or a figment of his own imagination. In this version Simon Flanagan (Laurence Saunders) is telling the story that led to his current incarceration. A Doctor (Iain Armstrong) is listening across a desk and as well as playing this character, he is also in charge of the sound effects and ideas that add so much to this production.

The stage is set out like a radio studio from the 1950’s, where in one corner are actors, and across the other side are sound designers, adding aural clues to the story which helps the listener’s imagination. This would have worked on the radio well enough but in theatre there is also the visual plane.

Shadows are cast against the wall, multiple characters come to life through the vocal talents of Saunders. He plays the gentle nurse Simon, caring for Mr Mason the East End old man, but he also plays the three policeman who knock on the door at four in the morning, following a report of a domestic disturbance.

As the play develops, the audience is given some indication of Flanagan’s state of mind. Every noise, from the scrape of pen on paper, to kitchen sounds becomes something fearful. As the sound of Mr Mason’s eye-lids begin to keep Simon awake, his right hand seems to take on almost homicidal life of its own, until the final action sees Mr Mason lying dead.

Never has the phrase ‘And then I dismembered the body…’ caused so much glee in an actor and revulsion in an audience. Using nothing more complicated than sticks of celery, a saw, dripping water, and a selection of large and small citrus fruits, and the collective audience, we were treated to the most suggestively gory, but cleanest scene imaginable.

And as the play nears its end, we are left with the Dr telling Simon that he will call in for his next appointment on Wednesday and we are no nearer to knowing the truth.

Is Simon insane, or ill? Like a lot of plays, the final piece in the puzzle is left to the audience to solve.