Nevermore, Barbican Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Once upon a mid-week weary, in the Barbican so dreary, while I nodded, nearly napping, came there actors, vaguely tapping, gently rapping, on my semi-conscious door. Edgar Allan Poe's the subject of their mock heroic mumming, all in words and gentle strumming, and their title's Nevermore.

Alas, the Catalyst Theatre never attempt a parody as weak as this in their drab recounting of Poe's life among the ladies he loved, the booze he drank and the rivalry he forged with that lying reprobate, Rufus Griswold, his editor and peeved critic.

Instead, they present a sort of commedia dell'arte charade, sunk by its own pre-recorded soundtrack and therefore unable to achieve the wished-for theatrical synthesis of Tim Burton meets the Tiger Lillies. The spooky melodrama and gothic effects are restricted to a bad sound design and acting by the seven-strong cast as dead as a dodo.

We meet Poe's actor parents, then his unkind stepfather, his lost love Elmira, his siblings, who prance about like Humpty Dumpty and Violet Elizabeth Bott, and the teenaged cousin with whom he became tragically infatuated. The characters materialise behind a flat arrangement of screens, along with a few animal heads and some night-time silhouettes that are as scary as the Teletubbies.

Poe's not really been well served in the theatre since Steven Berkoff's startling early assault on The Fall of the House of Usher. Punchdrunk's recent Masque of the Red Death was OK as an installation but pitiful in its acting and narrative mutilations.

The Catalyst approach is to present Poe pure, with no squelchy gothicism or fanatical bravura; the substitute of cosy, modish mimetics is a poor one. So I peered into the darkness, doubting, dreaming, is this Poe-pourri for real? Then I woke, disturbed and lonely, and I ran out, quietly screaming, not to panic, just to feel.

To 10 July (0845 120 7511)