Tristan Bates Theatre, London – until 25 March 2017
BACK TO FAUST PRINCIPLES … “I hope nobody misses / The moral in a show as short as this is.” Marie Corelli, whose 1895 bestseller on the Faust theme inspired Luke Bateman and Michael Conley, may have a brief spin in her grave but emerge with a rueful grin.
Her story is about a writer, Geoffrey Tempest, tempted by Satan in the person of his patron – the rich Italian Prince Lucio (Lucifer, geddit?). The devil rather hopes to be turned down, so he can gain remission and not be bound longer by human weakness and greed. Bateman and Conley make the writer into an impoverished but self-important composer of a“serious” musical play on that very theme. He is a sort of proto-Sondheim without the wit or talent: the play has three characters plus the accompanist and every song sounding exactly the same, earnestly unmelodious and with splendidly dreadful witless lyrics.
So naturally, the task of Lucio is to ply him with money, fame, and promises of “the woman”, provided he turns his oeuvre into a sparkly 1920’s musical comedy played for laughs and backed by a line of “chorines” kicking stockinged legs.
It’s a neat idea, and fits this studio scale with cabaret slickness and plenty of in-jokes about producers, audiences, critics, cheap commercial populism and the pointlessness of making art that nobody wants. A major asset (and the main reason I tumbled off a two-plane journey just in time to get there) is Stefan Bednarzyk, the king of intelligent cabaret. He is musical director and Satan’s slave accompanist (apparently dumb, till he sings). He occasionally and delightfully accompanies Tempest’s more overblown emotional speeches with well-judged crashes and trills on the piano, and otherwise deploys some cracking fed-up reaction faces.
Simon Willmont is a bewildered, vain Tempest (though the gag about him throwing up in the wastepaper basket at Lucio’s jollier tunes is overdone), and “The Woman” is Claire-Marie Hall, who has to be three different girls in succession owing to Lucio’s impatient tendency to murder anyone who doesn’t cooperate. She does well, though is stuck with a few too many sub-Wildean-cum-suffragette observations about womanhood.
But the real joy is Dale Rapley as Lucio: middle-aged, thickset, cynical in demeanour, his is a more dangerous handsomeness than any hapless juvenile can employ. He abandons the dreary young man’s score for his big number “Ta-ta-ta-ta-Tartarus! You’ll think there’s no rules when you see our boys and ghouls…Tartarus! Sin and guilt are quite bizarre-to-us!”. So we howl and whistle as he flings himself round the stage, burly as a bouncer and camp as ninepence. Wouldn’t have missed that bit for the world. It’s the frothiest of Fausts.
Box Office 020 3841 6611 / http://www.TristanBatesTheatre.co.uk
to 25 March sponsor: Inland Homes