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Meet the writer behind gothic musical The House Of Edgar

This July our Time & Leisure Studio is to play host to new gothic musical, The House Of Edgar. Ahead of the show, we sat down for a chat with writer, composer and musical director Thomas F. Arnold.

So, tell us about The House Of Edgar...

The House Of Edgar is a folk musical inspired by the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe. The show weaves real events from Poe's life with some of his most famous works to create its own ghostly tale. It's dark, but also beautiful and romantic - just like Edgar's writing.

Eoin McAndrew as Poe's rival Rufus Griswold

After Poe's untimely death, his rival - Rufus Griswold - seizes control of his estate, determined to destroy his reputation. But within the walls of Poe's former home in Baltimore his dark tales start to come to life, leaving Griswold to question whether they are simply marks upon a page or something else entirely?

What drew you to Edgar Allan Poe's writing and made you want to turn it into a musical?

I bought a collection of Poe's stories because I was going through a pretentious phase where I thought I should read a lot of classic literature! I must admit I struggled with them first - Poe's language can be quite impermeable to the modern reader - but I got really into The Tell-Tale Heart. When I read it I was on an empty late-night train, which added to the oppressive lunacy of the story.

'Poe's stories have the perfect mix of scares and heart'

Horror never seems like an obvious genre for a musical, but Poe's stories have the perfect mix of scares and heart. And you need heart to write good songs.

Do you have a favourite song from the show?

I think our version of The Tell-Tale Heart would have to be my favourite now. Mainly because Sarah Dean is so great performing it, it's genuinely unsettling!

It was actually a song I was quite unsure about when I was first writing the show - it felt a little gimmicky. It really caught me off guard when it suddenly became a favourite for audiences when we first did the show. I guess I've had the joy of recognising that it's actually not bad through them.

Who would you say has been your biggest influence as a composer?

I'm not allowed to say Taylor Swift, am I?

The show has a real folk edge to it, which came from listening to a lot of artists like Seth Lakeman, The Moulettes, Kathryn Tickell etc.

Our Director Ben Philipp and I have also been listening to a lot of Dario Marianelli recently, who wrote these great romantic scores for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. We've been trying to capture that sense of deeply emotional love in the new arrangements for a lot of the later songs in the show.

What other sources of inspiration did you draw upon to create the show?

I'm a big horror fan, so there's a lot of references within the show and the music to films and books from that canon. One of our lead characters - Mr. Price - is named after actor Vincent Price, who starred in a lot of Poe film adaptations. There's also references to The Thing, The Shining, The Exorcist and stuff like that - but I don't want to give too much away! 

James Alston as Mr Price - named Poe film veteran Vincent Price.

It's not all horror though. There's also a strong period-romantic strand through the show, for which we watched a lot of Jane Austen. I've only realised how odd a combination that sounds now that I've said it out loud.

Tell us a little bit about the history of the show?

I originally developed the show with Beth Clarence way back when we were both at university. We wrote a few songs and tried them out at a musical theatre open mic night and they went down really well.

A year or so later we got together a group of other students to perform the show at the Edinburgh Fringe. We had a really late slot in a tiny theatre just off the Royal Mile because that's all we could afford, but for our show it was perfect. It was a really busy month, handing out flyers all day and then doing the show every night, but we loved every minute (even the full week of torrential rain we endured in the middle)!

'We had a really late slot in a tiny theatre... but for our show it was perfect'

Since then we've been trying to get the show back off the ground but we with final exams and graduating university we haven't been able to find the right time until now. It's really exciting to be at it again for this summer and it feels like a real reunion for a lot of us.

What's different about this new production?

We've got a new director this time round in the form of Benedict Philipp, who was actually in our original cast. He's brought some keen eyes to the show and really shaken it up. We have a new script, new set, new cast, new choreography. If people saw that original production they'll still recognise our story, but now its told in a really urgent and involved way.

Benedict Philipp as The Madman at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016

What's been your favourite memory from working on the show so far?

Back at the Fringe in 2016 we got a very lovely review in The Scotsman. Given how late our show was, I would often lie in until at least 10 every morning. So, when the review was published Eoin McAndrew and James Alston from our cast went out, bought the paper and then woke me up with it like kids waking their parents with their presents on Christmas Morning. That was pretty cool.

What can audiences expect when they come to see The House Of Edgar?

'I hope people come away having experienced Poe less as an icon and more as a human'

Very little, but in a good way. We're really careful to avoid spoilers for the show because we believe the best audience experience of the piece is an unwitting one.

It's spooky, but it's also very earnest and heartfelt. I hope people come away having experienced Poe less as an icon and more as a human.

The House Of Edgar plays at the Time & Leisure Studio from Wednesday 4 - Friday 6 July