For fairly obvious reasons, site specific theatre has been rather thin on the ground this past year – unless you call the bedrooms of actors seen via Zoom, site specific. Even highly polished online productions have tended to rely on constructed graphics as a background to whatever is being performed and certainly the glossiness provided by a magnificent set with a huge budget has only been possible when the piece is a filmed recording of a show videoed before the pandemic. But if you’re yearning for a bit of upmarket décor then look no further than The Sorrows Of Satan which has been filmed in the ballroom of Brocket Hall, a country retreat/minor stately home in Hertfordshire.
The piece is a musical comedy (sorry, musical play) styled in the form of a 1920s entertainment which pokes fun at itself, the genre it purports to honour and the world of showbiz in general. It is based on a controversial 1895 novel by Marie Corelli which has been variously described as the first best seller in popular fiction or, alternatively, the worst horror novel ever written. Corelli’s book was in turn based on the legend of Faust (Goethe/Marlowe et al). It’s current iteration as a flapper era musical comedy (sorry, musical play) comes from the pens of Luke Bateman (music) and Michael Conley (book and lyrics) and was first seen in London in 2017.
It is the story of penniless but pretentious musical comedy (sorry, musical play) writer Geoffrey Tempest who has penned what seems like a ghastly operetta about Satan and his sorrows largely seeming to consist of the same melody repeated ad infinitum. He has arranged a rehearsed reading for a group of theatre types who might come up with the readies to keep him afloat and the generous, yet mysterious Prince Lucio Rimanez is lending Tempest his palatial home in which to hold the event. The latter, being of foreign extraction in a 1920s musical comedy (sorry, musical play), is naturally not all he seems or apparently of this earth and soon has Tempest selling his artistic soul for fame, money and love. New songs more in keeping with 1920s show tunes keep making their presence felt and are by various means interpolated into the script. Two of the actors due to appear meet their ends in offstage accidents involving upper floor windows and so Tempest and Rimanez have to take over the two main roles along with mute servant Amiel who, fortunately, plays the piano. The cast is completed by a female performer listed as The Woman and whose identity keeps morphing even if her physical appearance doesn’t.
I kept finding myself in two minds about this piece which certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously and sends up anything which might. However, this means it does rather try to have its cake and eat it too by mocking conventions of the time while still seemingly perpetuating them (the suspicious foreigner, the reduction to a cipher of the female character, the fawning attitude towards money and class) but perhaps I’m just trying to impose a serious gloss on something that was never meant to be more than a healthy dollop of froth. The writers Bateman and Conley have a good deal of fun with their characters, the latter being drolly suave in a way that would not seem out of place in Wilde or Coward. There’s never a camp twinkle far from his eye and he handles the musical numbers with a good deal of brio or what Cyrano would call “panache”. They are joined by Stefan Bednarczyk on the piano – despite his character’s having lost his tongue (literally) he gets a jolly number too at the start of the second half. Molly Lynch plays the female role(s) and clearly enjoys the variations and similarities with which her various characters are imbued.
The filming is well done, and the backdrop looks the real deal – which, of course it is, even if a 1920s show would have had a lot more changes of scenery. Adam Lenson’s homage to the shows of the era comes through clearly in the arch direction and by ensuring that some of the more knowing dialogue is well pointed. The first 20 minutes had me squirming a little as it all seemed rather cod and even under rehearsed but that turned out to be the point – if you’re watching, stick with it. However, I still thought the first half could do with a trim, the joke about the repetitive nature of Tempest’s music did wear a little thin. But when the style began to vary away from the musical play towards musical comedy (not sorry, this time) with the introduction of the Prince’s new numbers things definitely perked up. After all, the devil does, apparently, have all the best tunes
Production photos by Jane Hobson
The Sorrows Of Satan has its own dedicated website – click here
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