Review – Doctor Faustus

Written for What’s On Stage – 19/1/10

Doctor Faustus at Stratford Circus until Saturday 6 February.

Men stand in artfully geometric lines swathed in 50s Macs and stylish trilbys. We could be down on the waterfront but instead we are plunged into a sexy, clubbing version of Christopher Marlowe’s hellish play, Doctor Faustus.

The tale of Faustus selling his soul to the devil, partying like a fiend for four and 20 years and then finally paying the price is one of the best known in the English speaking world. So it is baffling that a production that has such a consummate visual style could get the telling of this epic tale so amiss. And yet it does.

Our sweet (did anyone ever think they would describe Faustus using such terms?) cast throw themselves with panto-like gusto into the cavalcade of caricatures presented here – from the chorus of ‘interns’ to our professional main cast, one cannot say that what’s missing is enthusiasm from these performers. But although the students who shudder these possessed spirits vividly into life are impressively present, they lack the maturity needed to create a truly threatening chorus of demons. This lends the whole evening a slightly boyish tint which is not dispelled by our two leads whose youthful interpretations of Faustus and Mephistopheles are either too ‘little boy smug’ or ‘sneaky white-eyed bully’ to really get to the bloody heart of their fateful and epic matching.

Indeed where this piece should build slowly to a horrendous climax, the revelation of a soul in unending torture, director Joss Bennathan appears to have lost his way somewhat; giving us a jumbled sequence of bizarre comedy skits, mixed with awkward philosophical revelations and a subplot that baffles.

But redemption is to be found in the sensual visual feast that makes up this production. Danny Warboys’ superb soundscape engulfs the stage like a hellish drug fuelled techno glove, as does David Crisps’ stylish industrial set and trippy cubic projections and Rachel Francis’ vivid lighting pallet.  Choreographer Jonny McCann’s Thriller-inspired arrangements are just on the right side of chilling and an admirable supporting cast bring in the laughs; especially Jack Donnelly whose ‘Robin’ all but steals the show with his own special brand of camp clowning.

This production has succeeded in creating an unsettling hell on earth so it is a conundrum why this Faustus fails to find its tragedy. But it becomes clear that all that’s missing from this glossy piece is good old fashioned story telling, ultimately leaving you as in need of answers as our doomed eponymous hero is himself.

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