The Sorrows of Satan will not be everybody’s cup of tea. The show itself knows this, even joking about it during the final number. This Everyman, it seems, it not for every man.
Bateman and Conley’s new musical play is adapted from the long-forgotten 1895 novel of the same name by Marie Corelli. Set in the heart of corrupt 1920s London and surrounded by the emotionally bankrupt, we find pretentiously avant-garde playwright Geoffrey Tempest. He’s been kicked out of his flat with nothing but a ‘bag of sad bric-a-brac’ and the awful shirt on his back. He has one final chance to prove himself and make his fame and fortune: a reading of his new musical play, The Sorrows of Satan.
The endeavour is being generously supported by Prince Lucio Rimânes, an aged/ageless benefactor with a penchant for getting his own way at whatever cost. Lady Sibyl, straight out of Downton it seems, joins the two to play the Ibsenesque ‘Woman’ of the piece. As they embark upon their final rehearsal, Rimânes starts to make significant revisions: ones that could make the piece eminently more popular, but may make the piece as bankrupt artistically as Tempest is financially. The Prince, in part of his bargain, offers much more than fame, but fortune and love too.
It is clear from the play’s self-referentialism – and from the creative team’s previous successes and stumbling blocks – that they share a particular and mutual interest in form. To work in musical theatre means being told, often outright, that your form is heinous. Too cloying, too showy, too big, too fake, too gay, even. The play within a play nature of The Sorrows of Sadness adds to this exploration of form.
Thus, it makes strange sense that a play so concerned with artistic integrity itself has none. The classic German myth Faust, nodded to throughout, originated in the 1400s. The Sorrows of Satan was a controversial novel in the late 1800s, and the music of the piece is entirely 1920s pastiche.
Unfortunately, it never feels that the play attains meat or meaning. Why this struggle? Why produced now? Why set then? What are we supposed to feel for these cardboard cut outs who just strolled straight out of some musical revue? In this micro-managed and multi-faceted world, can we connect to Faustian wishes for ‘success’, ‘money’ and ‘love’? The storyline itself begs the question: do we really need another (male-authored) play about a (male) author struggling to write a play?
However, despite this – and if it’s your style – the jokes are thick and cheesy. They rarely rely on slapstick but instead choose loftier subjects and relay only the occasional sexual leer. Despite being set across just one evening, the pace never lags and a springy second act allows for more interesting music and wacky encounters.
The music displays intelligence and historical knowledge. Clear (and even lyrical) references to Noel Coward are present, however, such ‘ditties’, by Coward or Conley and Bateman, rarely pack the punch. Songs feel a little non-existent in comparison to the now expected modern day musical numbers such as I’m Here (The Color Purple), You Will Be Found (Dear Evan Hansen) and She Used to Be Mine (Waitress).
All three actors perform adequately, given little chance to shine within the constrictions of uptight, sardonic and self-referential 1920’s toffery. Voices are clear however inhibited by incessant warbling and rolling rs. Despite being both centre stage and mute for most of the performance, Stefan Bednarczyk is an unexpected almost invisible scene stealer, and Claire-Marie Hall proves herself malleable, both physically and performatively. Lenson’s direction is lively and amenable, keeping a static piece driving forwards.
Conley doubles as set and costume designer, giving a fluidity and flair to an archaic and formulaic fashion. A muted palette is piqued with orange hues, with a sleek black piano sat proudly centre-stage.
Sam Waddington’s lighting designs are kind and responsive, allowing in the second act for the quick switching of states and the opening up of a more performative space. Andy Graham’s sound is simple and effective yet not necessarily subtle enough for the smallness of the Tristan Bates studio-like space.
In The Sorrows of Satan, Bateman and Conley have created a light-hearted, nifty and popular piece, littered with zippy tunes and cheesy laughs. Just the tonic, if it’s your cup of tea.