The Doubtful Guest

The American writer and illustrator Edward Gorey was a purveyor of what he called “literary nonsense”. The wonderful Hoipolloi is our leading purveyor of theatrical whimsy with shows such as Floating and Story of a Rabbit. This brief evening – childlike, but not childish and aimed at all ages – takes the 14 rhyming couplets of one of Gorey’s best-known stories and transforms them into a piece of visual theatre that captures all the Victorian pastiche, fantastical imagination and ominous air of Gorey’s original.

The closing lines of Gorey’s verse, “It came 17 years ago, and to this day/ it has shown no intention of going away,” sum up the simple scenario in which the secure country house of a family is invaded by a strange, penguin-like creature that takes up residence, eats the crockery, deposits the books from the library into the pond and lies in wait outside rooms.

The beauty of Gorey’s tale is that it is so open to interpretation. Are the family right to view the creature with such anxiety? Is he real or merely a figment of their imagination? Could he be a poltergeist or a new baby or the arrival of adolescence wreaking havoc in a previously quiet household? Might he be an immigrant arriving in a new country?

The beauty of this production is that all these scenarios are possible, and yet it adds further layers as it presents the story as a piece of poorly conceived amateur dramatics being presented by the besieged family. The comic-sinister atmosphere is brilliantly achieved, and Hoipolloi delve not just into the psychological depths of Gorey’s story, but have enormous fun examining the nature of make-believe and the power of the imagination while revealing the trick of theatre itself.

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian