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Review: Doctor Faustus (Southwark Playhouse)

Review by Daz Gale


Southwark Playhouse is home to the supernatural at the moment as a brand new production of Doctor Faustus takes over The Little in what has promised to be a multi-sensory theatrical experience. With such an interesting take on an often performed classic, this had the potential to either be one Hell of a show or theatre Hell, but which was it?


Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy was written in the late 1500s shortly before his death and have been adapted throughout history for both stage and screen, last seen in London in a major West End production starring Kit Harrington in 2014. For this new adaptation from the Lazarus Theatre Company, the rulebook has been ripped up to bring something fresh and new to the story.



The multi-sensory theatrical experience that this production boasts did pique my interest, especially as it was in the smaller of the two spaces in Southwark Playhouse. While that space is no stranger to versatile ways of staging productions, the description made it sound something more immersive than it actually was. This was very much still a case of sit in your seat and watch a production conventionally with only the tiniest of audience interaction if you were sat in the front row.


Lights designed by Stuary Glover were dotted around the space including under seats and a great use of sound from Sam Glossop did allow for some clever tricks, and a great use of a curtain blocking off part of the space led the way for some unexpected reveals, there was nothing of note to leave a satisfying impression. It felt like it perhaps needed to be a bit more immersive (that dreaded word) for it to evoke the same response in the audience they were clearly hoping for. Though the actual set design from Sorcha Corcoran should be commended for making an exciting watch visually.



While the use of language was not updated, leaving Marlowes text for purists to enjoy, I couldn’t help but wonder when exactly this was meant to be set, with a strange use of props from various decades used in the production, most jarringly when a mobile phone was brought out to snap a selfie. If the point of this was to be deliberately vague and conflicting, all it managed to do was take me out of the story and fail to engage in what was taking place on stage.


Adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes, this was definitely an interesting take on the sourxe material so I'd be lying if I said I didn't find some of the choices quite baffling. Tonally it was all over the place, which while may have been consistent with the original text, it never quite succeeded in reaching the darkness the story promises while the more humorous moments fell flat. The inclusion of the cast singing the ‘Hokey Cokey’ may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in reality it was one of the strangest things I have ever seen in all my years of theatregoing. A bizarre sequence recreating a Planetarium perhaps should have been camp but in reality just felt dull, while an ill-advised musical number introducing us to the seven deadly sins with lyrics such as “She’s a sin, she’s a sin, she’s a sexy sexy sin” should never have seen the light of day.



Marlowes original writing and story still carries its weight nearly 500 years later, with an intriguing and at times terrifying premise of selling your soul to the devil. The cast that were assembled were impressive too, with Jamie O'Neill expertly leading the pack in a captivating performance as John Faustus, joined by a commanding turn from David Angland as Mephistopheles. The remaining cast members all play a variety of roles, with one standout being Candis Butler Jones who excels in her brief but memorable turn of Lucifer, or Lucy for short.


Ultimately, this production of Doctor Faustus should be commended for its bravery and its defiance in aiming to do something differently. I have the utmost respect for the Lazurus Theatre Company for all they do and what they tried to do with this production. While fortune might fortune the brave, sadly it didn't seem to pay off this time, with a series of convoluted and incohesive choices which never quite landed in the way they were hoped. While there are still some interesting elements to this production, it all too frequently falls short of the experience that had been promised. While they may not need to sell their soul to the devil in order to improve this production, they certainly need to rethink some of their choices... in my opinion anyway.



I always feel so disappointed when I don’t love a production and take no joy in being negative about it at all. I also need to point out that I was kindly invited to review this the day before the official press night, so there is every chance some of these problems may have been ironed out already. After all, this is what live theatre is – not everything is going to work but to be able to develop and change works so they constantly grow is the true beauty of it. I should also mention, as always, that theatre truly is subjective and just because I may not have been a fan of a show personally, that is only one persons opinion and it is always worth seeing a show for yourself regardless of one reviewers opinion. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy Doctor Faustus more than I did.


★★


Doctor Faustus plays at Southwark Playhouse until October 1st. Tickets from https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/


Photos by Charles Flint

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