Venue: The Lowry
Where: Salford

Adapting H P Lovecraft’s tales of cosmic horror from page to stage presents unusual challenges. The writer’s stories include phrases like ‘tangible colours’ and ‘shapes made out of sound’ that are uniquely descriptive but impossible to reproduce with even the most lavish Hollywood budget.

Sensibly, adaptor and sole performer, Michael Sabbaton leaves such things in the imagination of the audience where they belong. The Dark Gods are conjured up by the actor’s anguished reactions to excellent and grotesque sound effects that suggest there is something in the dark. This stripped-down approach is a major strength of ‘The Lovecraft Chronicles’ allowing Sabbaton to convey the staggering ambition of the original text but add a degree of psychological depth.

In The Temple, the first part of the double bill, a commander of a sinking U-boat is convinced that a cursed ivory head is dragging the vessel towards a demonic temple. On the other hand, Sabbaton’s performance suggests, the commander’s madness could be the result of repressed guilt at past actions or his unsupportable pride.

Lovecraft’s tales followed similar themes (human encounters something beyond his understanding and comes to a sticky end). But, although the storyline in the second tale The Call of Cthulhu recalls the first, the atmosphere is subtly different. Sabbaton’s intense and largely static performance brings out the claustrophobic sense of being trapped in the enclosed space of the submarine. By contrast the wider range of characters and slightly looser style in the second half shows how the growing evil can contaminate even the wide-open spaces of the USA.

Sabbaton’s respect for the source material limits the theatrical potential of the show. No effort is made to form a link between the tales. They are presented as written – individual stories – even though a shipwreck referred to in the second tale could, with a minimum of tinkering, have become the submarine in the first. His enthusiasm lets the first story go past a logical conclusion to a point where the actual ending feels unclear.

In terms of performance and presentation the show cannot be faulted. Sabboton offers a wide range of totally convincing characters and is able to show the terrifying consequences of trying to cope with the unknown. Suburb gloomy lighting and sound effects maintain the sense of encroaching doom throughout the show.

The writings of H P Lovecraft may be an acquired taste but this engrossing production will appeal even to those who are not fans.

- Dave Cunningham