DumbWise Theatre Company's adaptation of Goethe's Faust Part Onebegins promisingly. A man stands in his braces spread out victim-wise on a raised step on a nearly bare stage (contemplating suicide?) while four actor-musicians in a semi-circle facing away from the audience insinuate an atmospheric theme on violin, double bass, accordion and guitar. As the evening goes on, the instrumental element remains excellent, but the anticipated excitement seldom materialises.
It's difficult to say why, given that the production has received five-star acclaim at other venues. Doncaster Cast's Second Stage, splendidly versatile, may be just too big for such an intimate show, especially when John Godber's ever-popular On the Pistein the Main House cuts down the attendance.
However, John R. Williams' translation seems to be decidedly less "lyrical and biting" than publicity suggests. Such of the rhymed sections have lyricism and wit, true, but there are also ponderous, highly prosaic passages. Director John Ward's adaptation rightly favours economy, starting straight in with Faust himself, and David Hewson's music always works well as instrumental accompaniment and includes some powerful or moving songs alongside some rather anonymous ones.
This version of Faust has the philosopher calling on the Devil not for great knowledge or power or wealth, but simply sensual pleasure, more specifically in the form of the innocent teenager Gretchen. There seems to be an absence of Faust having fun, a rather lame scene in the pub ending with him in danger of a beating.
But, whatever version of the Faust story the playwright pursues, the relationship between Faust and Mephistopheles is crucial. David Burnett's mannered preening Devil, a public school prefect gone to the bad, is neither icily menacing nor – at the other extreme – radiating serio-comic delight at his evil. Adam Boakes gradually builds the anguish and intensity as Faust – a true and effective performance without the charisma to animate the central relationship.
John Ward's direction does tend towards wild cries and stylised movements at the scary bits, but generally the playing of the ensemble reveals the strength of the company. Samantha Sutherland and Eilidh deBonnaire are exemplary singer/actor/musicians, contributing a toughly sympathetic Martha and a naively trusting Gretchen respectively while doing great things on a variety of instruments: Sutherland's clarinet playing is so impressive that I have no doubt that the upper register squawks during Walpurgisnacht are totally deliberate.
Jofre Alsina and musical director David Hewson spend the first half very successfully supplying string accompaniments to many of the scenes (guitar, double bass, mandolin, whatever is needed), then Alsina suddenly emerges as Gretchen's brother Valentin to sing quite beautifully the best song of the evening, eventually an increasingly dramatic trio with Gretchen and Faust.
Faust continues to tour nationally, playing next at Slung Low's Hub in Leeds on 12 October. For full tour details visit www.dumbwise.co.uk