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07 March 2013

I'll Be Damned

Another arts posting from me in my new role as a Leeds cultural reporter. I say new .. rediscovered is probably a better way of putting it. Bear with me on this.

There was a time when I haunted the original Leeds Playhouse as Features Editor of Pennine Radio. I reviewed every show for a commercial radio audience of .. several. This was the same period, incidentally, during which Marc Almond of Soft Cell was pulling pints of lager behind the bar. Marc was for me, with my sheltered upbringing, the first bloke I'd ever seen wearing lipstick.

Since then I've been an occasional attender as a paying punter to shows at the purpose-built West Yorkshire Playhouse. But last night was my first in two decades to attend in the role of reviewer.

The original Leeds Playhouse was a rough and ready theatre created in half a vast sports hall the University of Leeds thought they could manage without for a bit.

Cramming in the necessary seats required a vertigo-inducing rake in the auditorium, but had the magical effect of giving every seat an unobstructed, front row view. Raw intimacy from Row J.

It was always intended as a temporary arrangement, the Uni needing that sport hall, so the minute the lease expired they converted it .. into a conference auditorium. They didn't convert it at all. They just took the friendly-but-garish seventies groovy-neon 'PLAYHOUSE' sign off the front and substituted something a bit more corporate.

Contracts, magical viewpoints, intimacy, conversions and blokes in lipstick - see where I'm going with this?  Bang up to the present day, and the chance to review 'Doctor Faustus' as part of the Leeds Culture Vulture team.

The joint production between the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow combines Christopher Marlowe's original text with contemporary material written by Colin Teevan, who attended the after-show Q&A. He seemed surprised and more than a little gratified that some audience members had been unclear where Marlowe's text ended and his began, despite a radical change in the idiom from Elizabethan to -well- New Elizabethan.

Credit for avoiding that potential 'speed bump' (to quote Teevan again) must go to the cast, who played effectively as an ensemble throughout. Most of the time they were all on stage, with 'dressing rooms' in full view of the audience. Don't get me started on plays within plays.

Opinion on the resulting performance seemed sharply divided. Those of us (including myself) who'd never seen the pure text performed in full seemed, by and large, to enjoy the hybrid version.

Those who knew and revered the original Marlowe (and there were several of these in the Culture Vulture gang; the woman sitting next to me confided it was her favourite play, ever) seemed less impressed. Classic Marmite.

There did appear to be some tension between conflicting themes in the production. Comedy and horror make uncomfortable bedfellows. Descending into hell or descending into camp. There was certainly plenty of camp, especially in the role-reversing sex. Think Rocky Horror without the music.

Kevin Trainor in the title role of Faustus appeared at times to be channeling Kenneth Branagh in 'let's make hard stuff accessible' mode whilst Siobhan Redmond was creepily captivating as a female Mephistopheles; the deadly vamp, the tart with no heart, a gender-bending back story and an otherworldly accent intended to convey (she told the Q&A) the farthest reaches of Asia into Europe, somewhere around Romania or (cue crack of thunder) Transylvania.

She and Faustus' true earthly love, Leah Brotherhead's Grace Wagner (Faustus has fallen from Grace .. geddit?) were the two characters who made the show.

The rest of the cast were playing it for laughs, but with an understated satirical twist. Lucifer, the Pope, a debauched rock star and the (un-named) American President are all played by the same actor - Gary Lilburn. Alasdair Hankinson spends most of his time in drag playing (variously) Wife, Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe.

Faustus' damnation at the end (by which time we were back with Marlowe's script) seemed, if anything, an anticlimax. That said, I enjoyed my evening very much. I judge a theatrical experience by its power to tell a story in a way no other medium can match. Doctor Faustus is a powerful story, well told.

I'm sold on it.

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