views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Devils
Bridewell Theatre
17th March 2015

★★★☆☆

Liz Stevens and Sam Pearce as Phillipe and Father Grandier

Photography © Dan Harris

When the director has to make significant cuts just to qualify for an 18 certificate, you know he's created something fairly controversial. Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils was immediately banned and criticised for its graphic violence, overt sexuality and utter contempt of the Catholic Church. John Whiting's somewhat earlier play was based on exactly the same source material as Russell's work, a book by Aldous Huxley, so there's no reason why a stage production of The Devils shouldn't be downright disturbing. However, this production of The Devils by self-proclaimed "premier amateur theatre company" Sedos is frequently played for laughs rather than being a pure horror.

Father Grandier (Sam Pearce) is young, charismatic and despite being a man of faith, also a regular sinner. Town officials D'Armagnac (Juliette Chrisman) and De Cerisay (Matthew Tylianakis) protect him as much as possible, but Grandier's womanising is an open secret in his parish and you just know he can't get away with it forever. Bishop De La Rochepozay (Simon Hill) is not best pleased by the young priest's scandalous behaviour, and when an opportunity presents itself to get rid of him, well, God helps those who help themselves.

The nuns at the Convent of St Ursula are without a spiritual leader, with Sister Jeanne (Rowena Turner) nominating Grandier as the replacement. When he turns down the job - presumably too busy frolicking with latest sweetheart Phillipe (Liz Stevens) - Jeanne coincidentally claims to have been possessed by a devil, putting the blame for this squarely on Grandier. Sisters Louise (Jessica Clements), Gabrielle (Stevens) and Claire (Steph Urquhart) all also claim to be possessed, and following a failed group exorcism by Chief Ghostbuster - sorry, Father Barre (Michael Mayne) - aided by second choice Father Mignon (Benjamin Press), the Church makes way for the law, and Grandier isn't just reprimanded by the Bishop, but tried for witchcraft in the courts.

Apart from some brand new choral pieces which have been penned by musical director Benjamin Thiele-Long, and which are beautifully performed by the ensemble, there's very little sound design. The Devils is a fairly gruesome tale and puzzlingly, there's no attempt to bring this out with any ominous background music, and the lighting design throughout the entire first half seems to ignore any other colours than white. There's no sound in the scene changes either - and with the lights not going fully down, and the "blackouts" very brief, the transitioning feels far too stark, too short and a little uncomfortable. The overlap between scenes with the actors scurrying off stage doesn't feel deliberate. There's no shelter and the rationale for this is unclear.

Steph Urquhart, Liz Stevens and Jessica Clements as Sister Claire, Sister Gabrielle and Sister Louise

Photography © Dan Harris

We're not quite sure what to make of Jeanne originally, but we don't believe she's truly obsessed or possessed, and that's a failing. In the second half, Turner plays the character more seriously, and the monologues showing her personal torment become increasingly compelling, but with a bit of help from sound and lighting, she could truly terrify us. Turner is let down here by director Nick Mouton, who doesn't make these scenes nearly as distressing as they could be. I'm not saying he needs to go as far as Russell, but by the time the interval comes, I want Jeanne to have driven me to the bar for a stiff drink to steady my nerves.

Without signposting, the tone is a little confusing, and we're not immediately sure what to find funny, but the show does settle down eventually and find a better balance. There's a solid double act between Adam (Jimi Odell) and Mannory (Sam Gregson), who are manipulated by incomer De Laubardemont (Stephen Maher), but who don't really seem to care. Their lack of morality echoes that of the other townsfolk. The acting is generally of a good quality across the entire cast, but some tighter direction is needed.

Given there are so many agendas and plots flying around, there's something quite poignant in the interactions between the Sewerwoman (Sorcha Boyce) and Grandier. The Sewerwoman is honest, open, uncomplicated - everything that everyone else is not - and this makes her an ideal friend for Grandier and an anchor for the audience. Just like the young priest we warm to her straight away, and when she condemns the mob mentality, this is enough to jerk us out of the frenzied action and remind us that the ends don't justify the means, and the ends aren't even that justifiable themselves. Boyce manages to entertain, but also touch us and guide us.

The set design is cleverly done, representing many different locations, ranging from Grandier's confessional box, to the city's high walls which become a sore point in local politics. There's certainly an evident ambition in the staging, and some of this does translate well. The company clearly want to impress and enthusiasm is always to be encouraged.

With that said, the devil is in the detail, and Mouton has sadly missed some of this. But even though there are missed opportunities and some odd choices, there's a lot of talent in the large ensemble cast which shines through.

The Devils ran from 17th to 21st March 2015 at Bridewell Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Blackfriars (Circle, District)



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