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Review: The Sorrows of Satan (Tristan Bates Theatre)

A new musical play adaptation of Marie Corelli's bestselling novel The Sorrows of Satan

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It's wonderful to encounter a new British musical that completely succeeds on its own terms and isn't trying to take on Les Mis-style blockbusters, Broadway razzmatazz or angst-heavy rock/pop tunes. If anything, this scintillating little gem of a show feels like a throwback to the piano-led, quintessentially English scores of Julian Slade or Sandy Wilson: sparkling, witty, light as a soufflé, and rather cleverer than it initially looks.

Distilling - rather than directly adapting - Marie Corelli's Faust-inspired 1895 novel, Luke Bateman (music) and Michael Conley (book and lyrics) have created an elegant, funny, thought-provoking entertainment that manages to be simultaneously satisfying and refreshing.

In the original novel, struggling author Geoffrey Tempest inherits a vast sum of money and unwittingly throws his lot in with devil incarnate Prince Lucio Rimânez, before realising that wealth can lead to misery. For this stage version - updated to 1924, the year of Corelli's death - Tempest is a penniless writer of stage musicals and the devilish Prince is the wealthy patron funding a reading of Tempest's latest work, a desperately worthy-sounding adaptation of the Faust legend ("it's not musical comedy! It's a musical PLAY!") After assuming the Satan role owing to the unexplained deaths of a number of other actors, Rimânez proceeds to rewrite and rearrange the work-in-progress. This prompts some sparky debate about attitudes to women and commercialism versus artistic integrity: "I get that you're trying to be avant garde, but there's no need to beat them about the head with it" says the Prince to the exasperated Tempest at one point, before giving himself a spiffy new showstopper, another clear case of the devil having all the best tunes.

In Adam Lenson's effortlessly stylish staging, Dale Rapley is in fine, scenery-chewing form as the charismatic Prince, as seductive as he is menacing; Simon Willmont imbues Tempest with just the right combination of desperation, preciousness and intensity. Stefan Bednarczyk is the (initially) mute accompanist Amiel, who brings the house down at the top of act two with a truly brilliant patter song describing how his life has derailed. Completing this stellar quartet is Claire-Marie Hall, superb as a character listed in the programme only as The Woman but who actually appears in three different guises, each subtly delineated but all with ravishing vocals.

Visually, the production is pure class: Conley's monochrome set and costumes, suddenly shot through with flashes of orange in props and accessories, is one of the finest examples of opulence on a budget that I've ever seen.

It's the wit and ingenuity of the writing that impresses most, however. There is an increasingly hilarious running gag that Tempest can only write one tune, but Bateman offers a terrific variety of musical pastiches as the show-within-the-show gets brutally rewritten. Conley's endlessly elegant, inventive and often very funny lyrics are some of the finest I've heard outside Sondheim. It will be interesting to see what this team come up with next.

If the piece were any longer than its duration of 110 minutes - including interval - the lack of emotional substance might prove a problem but as it stands it is almost perfect: a charming, fizzy confection with just enough bite to satisfy even the most jaded of palates. A real treat.

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