The Sorrows Of Satan
Tristan Bates Theatre
21 February 2017
This delicious new musical is the wittiest, most elegant and most extraordinary new show on offer in town right now. Ensconced in the bijou Tristan Bates Theatre for an unprecedented six-week run, Adam Lenson’s smart production of Luke Bateman and Michael Conley’s remarkable four-hander is a wonderful entertainment to charm and delight audiences of all kinds. The musical staging is also by the director.
Taking its lead from Marie Corelli’s best-selling late 19th century novel of the same name, the authors have updated the material into the racier 1920s, and transposed her cautionary tale of literary ambition into the glamorous West End of bright new musical comedies, the world of Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, H M Tennant and C B Cochrane. Bateman is easily their equal in writing memorable tunes: three days after the press night, I am still singing them – and I cannot say that about any other new scores I have heard lately. As a theatre composer, Bateman is going a long way. Corelli, admired by Oscar Wilde, has a nice line in beautifully constructed one-liners and aphorisms, and Conley has drawn out the best of them from her book and artfully peppered his ingenious script with them. The dialogue is beautifully well paced and generates a fair old firestorm of laughter. As a lyricist, he is a comfortable match for the best of Cole Porter or E Y Harburg: there is a magnificent command and control of language in his meticulously crafted texts: ‘Tartarus’ is one particularly notable success that will enchant every bit as much as it will make you smile. On the evidence of this score, I defy any audience not to place Bateman and Conley at the very forefront of new musical theatre writing talent in this country.
This production is blessed with interpreters who are happily in tune with their style. In this comical re-telling of the Faust story, Satan is represented in the corporeal form of Prince Lucio Rimanez, and played with urbane nonchalance by Dale Rapley. His target, the despairing failure of a musical comedy writer, Geoffrey Tempest, is attractively taken by Simon Willmont. The convenient love interest, a trio of engagingly contrasting roles collectively identified as ‘The Woman’, is portrayed by Claire-Marie Hall, who has great fun with her changes of role. And finally, music comes from the onstage drawing room grand piano played by Rimanez’s infernal side-kick, Amiel, gorgeously performed by Stefan Bednarczyk. This quartet of lovelies, in fact, are entrusted with pretty much doing a revue-format ‘reading’ of Tempest’s latest (awful) work, which somehow has seized the attention of our host, Prince Lucio, who gradually replaces Tempest’s unplayable tosh with work of much greater artistic and theatrical merit.
Conley has also designed the wonderful expressionistic, nearly monochrome box set of the Rimanez household’s apartment: I’m guessing, but the view out of the window makes me think of Belgravia. In fact, the whole production design (Associate, Craig Nom Chong) is done in a strict palette of black, grey, white and crocus orange, with tailoring of the lovely costumes provided by S Newman & Son. Sam Waddington – that upcoming genius of the theatre – lights it all with his customary brilliance and economy, and is especially adept in opening up the different ‘layers’ of the script.
In these sophisticated, if sombrely beautiful surroundings, the script being read takes as its subject – would you believe it? – the tribulations surrounding a production of a show called, ‘The Sorrows of Satan’. Indeed, if I’ve got all the layers right, we have a show about a show about a show. We have a story where all the characters exist in order to play other characters, and are – in themselves – merely projections of archetypes from an ancient and much-retold myth. Therefore, despite its pastiche appearance, a distinctly post-modern sensibility underlies the work, making it feel like a thing of the moment and lending it a lot more contemporary relevance than at first might be apparent. It exerts an intellectual fascination, as well as having a more directly theatrical appeal. Nevertheless, these are still people we want to know more about, and there is a point – a sometimes difficult to locate one, but a point nonetheless – when we actively want to hear from them at a heightened, lyrical level. One does not want to be too cool and detached in a story that is, after all, about human passions and the difficulties we all experience in negotiating them. Possibly, at times, the script veers away from key plot moments that might be more effective were they to land more emphatically: for instance, the decision of Tempest to sell his soul to the devil might convince more were it presented with more build-up and in a less than off-the-cuff manner – it is an axiomatic moment.
However, a deliberate decision has been taken to present the opening of the show in such a way that makes the audience objective observers of the conversations unfolding on stage. Later, the action becomes very much more energised and dynamic, and we are certainly drawn much deeper into their world than we were at first. Arguably, the latter is a more agreeable position for the audience to find itself in than the former, and I would not rule out there being some adjustments as the run progresses. As for the positioning and effect of musical numbers, when the individual characters are given worthwhile moments to reveal and explore their situations in song, we – the audience – love being a part of it. However, when they have to sing the (deliberately) dire stuff that the Tempest character has cooked up for them – before His Highness so helpfully steps in to provide infinitely better fare – we are less pleased. Indeed, there seem at least three moments in the first act which seem to demand a solo character-revealing or plot-developing song from these interesting characters. I would not be surprised to learn that at some point in the development of the work there were such songs. Now the show is on its feet and in front of the public, I think it is perhaps possible that they – or something like them – might return.
Three years in the making, for this enterprise we have to thank the terrific director, and encourager of new musicals, Lenson, who got the writers to broach the work in the first place. Having established a great working relationship with them on their previous project, ‘Personality’, Adam asked if they could come up with something smaller that might prove easier to get into full production. The result is this show. Initially intended as a two-hander, it has been allowed to grow somewhat larger, but remains a tidily focussed achievement, where we are stuck in a claustrophobic experience that constantly asks us to consider not only who the characters really are, but who we are ourselves. Lending the financial backing to the careful process of development is the executive producer, Alfie Taylor-Gaunt, and Joel Fisher, his other half at FTG Productions, who have spearheaded the growth of this project from its inception. I met them all at a showcase of much of the first act of this show more than a year ago at the St James’s Studio. And now, they are continuing to blaze an adventurous new trail with this ground-breaking venture at the Tristan Bates.
The theatre is part of the Actors’ Centre, just off Seven Dials in Covent Garden. The Centre’s Creative Programme Director, Michael John, is keen to broaden the uses to which the theatre is put, and now, working alongside Theatre Producer, Matthew Keeler, they are opening up the venue to runs much longer than the usual rapidly changing programme. Six-week runs are being tried out, with a view to allowing new work to find and build an audience: as an aim this is ambitious, but if the quality of the first production is anything to go by, it is founded upon the highest artistic and professional footing. With the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue powering ahead with its menu of short and medium-sized runs, The Other Palace opening its doors to the same, the Arts Theatre and Trafalgar Studios continuing to produce rapid turn-over in new product, and a brand new West End theatre development by Cameron Macintosh under serious consideration, things seems to be looking up for the industry.
As it now is, ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ is a splendid entertainment, where we can see great new talent ‘in vitro’. It will be fascinating to see the kind of audiences they attract for this work. As for me, I’m still singing the ‘diabolo in musica’ waltz that so obsesses Tempest in the first half, and the show-stoppingly brilliant ‘Tartarus’! I’ll be back to hear them, and the rest of this wonderful score, properly again in the theatre in the setting of this great new musical comedy – with a satanic twist.
Until 25 March 2017