“a skilled and entertaining, if rather undramatic, evening”
The intriguingly named The Sorrows of Satan is not a musical, but a “play with music.” That definition is one of the running gags in this elegant four hander by Luke Bateman (music) and Michael Conley (lyrics), directed by Adam Lenson, and filmed at the impressive Brocket Hall for online presentation. Another running gag is that no matter where we are in the plot, any time a new song is introduced, the tune is always the same, unless the devil has substituted his own music. Audiences won’t be surprised, therefore, to learn that this show is a new adaptation of the Faust story — and a very loose adaptation at that. More interestingly, The Sorrows of Satan takes more of its source material from Marie Corelli’s 1895 best selling novel of the same title. But as is sometimes the case when novels are adapted for the stage, there’s a lot of attention paid to the characters, but not really enough on the complex story that surrounds them. The result is a drama that is rich in delicious dialogue and clever song lyrics, but a bit thin on plot and a satisfying denouément.
No one reads Corelli any more, which is a pity, since her novels are well written descriptions of the excesses of the Gilded Age, with the perspective of a writer who knew how poverty could challenge the artist in search of a muse, and who also knew at first hand the circus that follows fame and fortune. Now that we are living through a new Gilded Age, it’s easy to see why Bateman and Conley picked this novel to adapt for the stage. Kudos to them and their producers, Aisling Tara and Alfred Taylor-Gaunt, for presenting it now. The pandemic has made it even harder for struggling artists to make a living, let alone find recognition for their work.
This adaptation of The Sorrows of Satan does make references to the social consciousness that Corelli was famous for, but Bateman and Conley prefer a lighter tone full of repartee and bon mots, which is more appropriate, given the setting for this production. They begin by introducing us to Geoffrey Tempest, a writer on the verge of destitution, who has been invited, rather improbably, to present his new “play with music” The Sorrows of Satan, to a specially invited aristocratic audience at a stately home. Once we learn that the devil, aka Prince Lucio Rimanez, is behind this invitation, hoping to win Tempest’s soul, the improbable becomes acceptable, and the theme of temptation and soul selling for fame and fortune finds its well worn groove.
The lion’s share of the action in The Sorrows of Satan go to Bateman, playing author Geoffrey Tempest, and Conley, as Prince Lucio. These two are likeable foils for one another, with good singing voices. Conley in particular is a charming, if rather languid devil, who can, at times, be roused to push people out of windows when they step out of line. It is left to Molly Lynch, playing a variety of women who step out of line by refusing to fall in love with Tempest, to provide some dramatic, and sexual, tension. She is suitably aristocratic as Lady Sybil, aggressively feminist as (successful) playwright Mavis Clare, and finally, sweet and vulnerable as the fresh young Irish actress Molly, who provides a way out of the tempting dilemma the devil and his eager victim find themselves. All three actors, together with musical director Stefan Bednarczyk, present on stage at the piano, and playing the (mostly) silent Amiel, Prince Lucio’s factotum, provide a skilled and entertaining, if rather undramatic, evening.
“the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness.”
It seems an age ago now but back in March, when the New York Governor ordered Broadway’s theatres to close as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the city, there was still the feeling in London that ‘it won’t happen to us’. But lo and behold, four days later, the Prime Minister’s statement ensured our theatres followed suit. The mass exodus of London’s West End and the fringe left an eerie silence that filled the playhouses, as they started to gather dust. Many, like Southwark Playhouse, remained frozen in time; the empty music stands, props on the stage floor and, lit only by the ghost light; the centre-piece grand piano, silent on the now-motionless revolve. Waiting.
The waiting was longer than we initially thought, but seven months later to the day, and leading the way in the reopening of our theatres, Katy Lipson (in association with Edward Prophet and People Entertainment Group) kicks off where we left off with Jason Robert Brown’s powerful two-hander, “The Last Five Years”. Despite the plexiglass and socially distant seating, as the first notes fill the auditorium it feels like the intervening months never really happened. In tune with the time-twisting concept of the piece the audience are transported back to March of this year into an alternative existence wherein this nightmare may never have happened. The energy of Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch is undimmed and the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness. They tell us the story, through song, of two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, as they travel through five years of their relationship. He is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day.
It is a clever device that gives us insider knowledge. We know how it is going to end right from the start and are free to concentrate on the journey each character makes. The downside is the inevitable predictability, but the focus is on Brown’s compositions; all beautifully crafted, with a range of styles; yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs. And director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Matching Higginson’s and Lynch’s faultless interpretation of the characters is their musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”.
In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as the two advance and retreat along their own paths. Ironically, that is the show’s one minor flaw. It is easy to forget, when the actors are sometimes only inches apart, that they are years apart in the narrative. It often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and this unintentional self-centredness occasionally leaves us cold. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
Yet the performances consistently manage to sweep this slight distraction away with their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, we are spellbound, and our belief in the magic of musical theatre is unquestionably reaffirmed.