This disappointing adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story aims for creepy horror, but ends up more soulless than terrifying. The tale involves a painter, the eponymous Pickman, who's been kicked out of a New England art club; which isn't all that surprising, since he keeps drawing ghoulish figures feasting on human flesh. An English visitor called Thurber is entranced by Pickman's talent, and follows him to a tumbledown building in the oldest part of Boston. Down in the cellar, he finds a deep dark well…
The tale is told by an older and wiser Thurber, who spends a lot of his time sitting on a chair and narrating the story into a telephone. I do understand what they're trying to do here – Lovecraft's original work is written as a conversation with an unseen companion – but the concept really doesn't work on stage. It's just too slow; the pauses for unheard responses are dull rather than tense, and the simple act of plodding back to the phone puts too much distance between action and narration.
The performance feels a bit phoned-in too. I guess the idea is that Thurber is hollowed-out by the horrors he's witnessed, but the stop-start, inexpressive delivery fell a long way short of drawing me in. Pickman, meanwhile, appears in flashback scenes, and I found him rather too pleasant to be sinister; the script tells us that he's somehow changing, but an idiosyncratic laugh is the only detectable sign.
The ending – which diverges a little from Lovecraft's – involves the unveiling of a final portrait, which has been ominously swathed in a paint-stained cloth for the entire duration of the show. But the dramatic reveal discloses nothing which we don't already know, and the painting, once uncovered, reminded me more of an emo than a fearsome ghoul. As a last hurrah, Thurber looks at a scrap of paper, then collapses in madness on the floor; it was only after googling the original short story that I understood exactly what he'd seen.
An attempted surprise was completely ruined by some clumsy noises backstage, and in any case you'll know what's coming if you've had a look at the programme. I'd be lying if I said I got through the show without feeling a single goosebump – but they were all in anticipation of a shock or twist which, in the event, never actually came.
There are some interesting thoughts about the memories embedded in buildings, and the hidden secrets of ancient places. But the atmosphere and tension are lacking – a particular disappointment after the strong reviews this show received at last year's Fringe. Something's gone wrong between then and now, perhaps in the lengthening of the running-time or the change in the venue. That's a huge shame; I can only hope they can put it right again.