A contemporary looking set adorns the stage for this production of Doctor Faustus, and I hadn’t appreciated until I got to the OSO Arts Centre in Barnes that this was a musical adaptation of the late sixteenth-century story. Organised religion has been stripped out of this radical retelling, and it’s been updated so much that it begins with a voicemail, and about half-way through there’s a subtle message to the audience about the importance of regularly backing up copies of one’s most important files and folders.
I wouldn’t say the set was minimalist, but it is certainly uncluttered. I’m not absolutely certain if the music was live – I’m assuming from the musician-less curtain call that it wasn’t. Either way, the balance between music and vocals could have been better. In such a plot-heavy musical, I regret having not been able to decipher a line or two here and there. This is one of those shows where the devil is in the detail, and with the narrative packed into a performance that lasted just over an hour, little if anything is superfluous.
Added to this, the programme mentions the development of this musical adaptation in conjunction with Claude-Michel Schönberg, most famous in the theatre industry for being the composer of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. The sung-through style of those shows is evident here as well, and I recalled an exit poll verdict from someone who had seen Les Misérables for the first time years ago, “They sang, and sang, and sang, and sang some more.” I never did get to the bottom of what ‘Valdes Disease’ was, its causes or the extent of its impact on the general population. What does become clear the personal reasons behind Dr Faustus (Linnéa Didrick) wanting so keenly to discover a cure for it.
There are significant differences, rightly or wrongly, between the two characters retained from Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 play, Faustus and Mephistopheles (Natalia Cinto). While Mephistopheles may still answer to Lucifer in the twenty-first century as in the sixteenth, the modern one isn’t as evil as the business executives Brennan (Albert McIntosh) and Jonathan (Liam Connery). There’s no attempt to deem all corporations as inherently evil, though nobody comes out of this story completely blameless, save for Beth (Victoria Hoyle), and even she feels it necessary to apologise at one point. (For what would be giving too much away. Sorry, not sorry, as it were.)
The musical numbers – I don’t know what any of them are called, as the programme doesn’t list them – drive forward the narrative. They are melodic tunes, for the most part, but not particularly memorable ones: I wasn’t exactly humming any of them as I left the theatre. But the chart music sound that this production goes for fits the storyline well, and the relative lack of sentimentality is simply delightful.
The strands of flashing lights eventually became distracting in its relentlessness during parts of the second half, losing their initial impact and becoming increasingly unnecessary. The character development is sufficient – just about – but the show occasionally feels a tad rushed, and without some background knowledge of the Marlowe script, I might have struggled with understanding the narrative as presented here.
Doctor Faustus with jazz hands and a tap routine? It works, though, and Liam Connery commands the stage as though he were in the cast of 42nd Street. The dramatic impact that a more traditional rendering of this story would have provided is significantly reduced here, and the show’s ending is far from tragic. All things considered, there’s nothing wrong with leaving the theatre refreshed and invigorated. A surprisingly energetic and uplifting production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Emma Faustus, a medical researcher, is on a personal mission to cure Valdes’ disease. With no hope of funding, she turns to Mephistopheles for a more extreme solution. Lucifer’s company will provide her with everything she could ever want – in exchange for an eternity of employment. From Tiger House Theatre comes a new musical developed with Claude-Michel (Les Misérables), retelling the legend of Faust for the modern age.
Faustus: Linnéa Didrick
Mephistopheles: Natalie Ciufo
Beth: Victoria Hoyle
Jonathan: Liam Connery
Brennan: Albert McIntosh
Directed by Sarah Wright
Produced by John Paul
Set and Lighting Design by Katrin Padel
Costume Design by Christina Hill
Graphics by Chris Bur
19 – 22 September 2017 | 8pm