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Review: THE SORROWS OF SATAN, Tristan Bates Theatre

Geoffrey Tempest is poor, but he has dreams - big dreams - and in the person of Prince Lucio Rimanez, he might have found the partner he needs. The mysterious continental aristocrat promises Tempest fame and fortune and the chance to re-invent musical comedies - sorry, musical plays - as a serious theatrical genre. With an inscrutable piano-playing mute and the beautiful, if forthright, Lady Sybil of Eltham to perform his meisterwerk for a select audience, can this unlikely quartet save the struggling, neglected genius?

Tempest, of course, isn't very good at writing songs and the Prince seems to be shadowing his part in the musical play - an adaptation of Faust - with some devilish tricks of his own, not least how he has caught Lady Sybil's eye much to the chagrin of Tempest, who is soon doubling down on his commitments to the Prince in return for promised glory. Life is imitating art deliciously - well, as deliciously as a big slice of cheesecake fills a tummy and clogs the arteries.

It's a clever conceit that could fall head over heels at any point, but Michael Conley and Luke Bateman have written a script as tight as any comedy I have seen in years. Not a moment is wasted, not a line could be excised, not a laugh is missed. Though wholly different in tone, there's a parallel with The Play That Goes Wrong, a phenomenon I first saw in a similar off-West End fringe venue. The show stands on its own two feet perfectly well, but if you're into meta stuff, there's plenty of the "play within a play within a play" hall of mirrors material to wallow in as the plot develops - another parallel with TPTGW.

The songs pop and fizz with wit and humour. There's the obvious influence of Noel Coward, but also plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan too (a glorious patter number finds a home) and maybe a little Ivor Novello, with the 1920s vibe running through the melodies and lyrics, some of which shoehorn rhymes into lines I never thought possible! There's pastiche present in many numbers but also genuine warmth too, the broadness of a panto song avoided - but sometimes only just!

All that work would be wasted if the actors failed to capture the tone of the humour, teetering as it does on the edge of parody without ever quite toppling over. Simon Willmont is all fired up righteousness and wide eyed innocence as the patsy Tempest, only understanding that he's the fall guy when he's already too invested in the game. Dale Rapley has the most fun as a passive-aggressive / ultra-violent Prince, oozing charm, charisma and menace. Claire-Marie Hall's "The Woman" is sexy, sadistic and sneering and terribly, terribly funny. And, after as good a first act closing moment as I can recall, Stefan Bednarczyk rolls out his Coward routine for a showstopper of a second act opener, a delightful intermezzo to warm us up again.

A word too for the show's design. Everything on stage and in the publicity draws on just black (of course) and a sordid, dirty yellow, a restricted palette that underlines the tightness of the show as a whole. As ever with comedy, the show is successful at least as much for what has been left out as for what has been included.

I suspect that The Sorrows of Satan is not for everyone - perhaps it's a little too pleased with itself at times and a little too wedded to the mannered style of its setting's time and place - but those who like will really like it. And I like it. So might you.

The Sorrows of Satan is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 25 March.

Photo Ben Radford Photography.

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