Cosmic horror descended on England’s capital last week as the London Lovecraft Festival returned after a three-year break.
Hosted at Kensington Drayton Arms Theatre, the London Lovecraft Festival brought a deluge of spooky, weird and wacky delights all inspired by the iconic 20th-century writer H.P. Lovecraft.
The Londoners attended three of the festival’s live performances across the week, taking in just a few of the Lovecraft-inspired works, which ranged from bone-chilling retellings of legendary stories to musical takes on some well-known characters.
Ahead of the festival’s launch, we spoke to its artistic director who explained what inspired her to produce a week in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft’s writings.
TL Wiswell said: “I interviewed somebody about this years ago, and he said that Lovecraft was the first author who saw the things that were most frightening not being external, like having your body eaten, or having the devil take your soul.
“The greatest fear was losing your sanity. It was an internal horror.”
The festival opened with two performances strikingly different in tone, the first a stripped-down retelling of three Lovecraftian tales.
Weird and Unnatural Tales by Jason Buck was a perfect tone-setter for the week to come, introducing attendees to the genre of so-called weird horror that Lovecraft’s writing has helped spawn over the last century.
Buck stood alone on a dimly lit stage and expertly told three short stories, two by English occultist Aleister Crowley and one by Lovecraft himself.
Buck dominated the Drayton Arms’ stage, the theatre’s small size aiding in creating the claustrophobic atmosphere so crucial in imparting the sense of unease needed to make horror effective.
Weird and Unnatural Tales wasn’t all frights and goosebumps, however, Buck’s frequent adlibs added much-needed levity to the sometimes overly-serious writing of the two authors.
Following Weird and Unnatural Tales came Re-Animator, the Bloody Musical, which saw the iconic character of Dr Herbet West – the Reanimator – reimagined as a closeted singing scientist and all-around very strange man.
This was the show’s London debut, with it previously having two successful outings in Glasgow, and unfortunately, despite being intensely funny at times, this Bloody Musical had a series of technical difficulties that made bringing it back to life an impossibility.
Despite these issues, audiences giggled and guffawed at the show’s often well-executed gags, with West’s silent assistant playing a starring role in making the show’s eccentric sense of humour work.
Unfortunately, however, this wasn’t enough to save the show, which eventually had to be ended prematurely due to severe technical difficulties.
Re-animator did return for the festival’s second night, but we are unable to attest to how that performance went.
Prior to attending an event seemingly spawned to pay tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, a man who without question held views so racist they were archaic even for his time, the question of how the festival would approach this issue was at the forefront of our minds.
The answer artistic director TL Wiswell landed on was to subvert Lovecraft’s unsavoury and outdated views by putting queer and anti-racist voices at the centre of several performances throughout the week.
She told us: “I’ve made some explicit decisions to address the seemingly real racism and also misogyny and occasionally antisemitism found in Lovecraft’s work.
“His heroes now become his heroines, and I’ve gone for gender and racially diverse casting.”
The final show we saw at the London Lovecraft Festival encapsulated this well and was undoubtedly the highlight of our time there.
The Atrocities at Arkham by theatre group Tell No Tales brought together everything iconic about Lovecraftian horror and steeped it in a thick layer of gender-bended 1920s film noir and sardonic humour.
The story, once again, followed Dr Herbet West’s attempts to reanimate the dead, but this tale included all the hallmarks of Lovecraft’s work, from cults worshipping unknowable gods to men losing their minds as they seek to find the secrets of the universe.
The play’s cast, who all expertly performed multiple different roles, were captivating in their commitment to melding Lovecraft’s work with the tone and story structure of a noir detective tale.
The Mise-en-scène in Atrocities at Arkham was a notable delight, as Tell No Tales used nothing more than a fold-up table to create an impressive variety of different sets and locations throughout the hour-long performance from a boat lost at sea to New York City tenement buildings.
With performances of intensity and genuine moments of both fear and humour, Atrocities at Arkham marked a perfect end to our time at the festival.
This wasn’t the end of the show, however, other notable events included a cabaret and a day of tabletop game sessions inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
In all, the London Lovecraft Festival was an impressive homage to the iconic chronicler of weird and cosmic tales, bringing together talented artists from across London’s theatre scene to make a week of bone-chilling delights any fan of Lovecraft should experience.
Perhaps more impressive though, were the efforts made by the festival’s creative team to subvert Lovecraft’s outdated personal views while embracing what made many of his stories special, creating an inclusive and modern experience that amplified the voices of those the author often sought to marginalise.
Featured image credit: TL Wiswell