DramaNorth East & YorkshireOperaReview

The Devil Inside – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Composer: Stuart Macrae

Libretto: Louise Welsh

Conductor: Michael Rafferty

Director: Matthew Richardson

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Co-commissioned by Music Theatre Wales and Scottish Opera, The Devil Inside received its premiere performance in Glasgow in January to an overwhelmingly favourable response from reviewers. Now it is on a short UK tour with Music Theatre Wales.

The Devil Inside is inspired by one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories of the supernatural, The Bottle Imp. Like the more famous Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it uses a supernatural power of transformation to pose moral questions. In Louise Welsh’s updated libretto two young men, Richard and James, encounter a rich, but sad,old man, who owes his wealth (and his misery) to a devil in a bottle. The devil gives him whatever he wants, but will claim his soul when he dies unless he can sell the bottle. On Richard’s prompting, James buys the bottle imp and becomes a successful and very rich property developer.

When James tries to escape the curse, a desperate sequence of sales begins involving James, Richard, James’ wife Catherine and an old Vagrant, the whole thing made more difficult by the fact that the bottle can only be sold for less money than the seller paid for it. The final scene is a frantic series of underbids as fear of hell contends with greed and the obsessive need for possession.

Louise Welsh expertly assembles the tale into a series of short scenes, economically directed by Matthew Richardson. Samal Blak’s minimalist designs are a constant prompt to the audience’s imagination with witty and telling details, all aided by the impressionistic lighting of Ace McCarron. If the results fail to make the flesh creep until the riveting final scene, it may be due to the rather predictable and repetitive nature of Stuart Macrae’s vocal writing.

There is, however, nothing predictable about the orchestral writing which is strikingly original, quirky and dramatic. The sound range of an ensemble of six strings, six wind, harp and percussion is increased by doubling on less familiar instruments such as contrabassoon, bass clarinet, harmonica and alto sax. With single wind instruments and inventive use of percussion, the effect is often of solo virtuoso performers. The excellent Music Theatre Wales ensemble makes a huge impact under conductor Michael Rafferty.

The current tendency to supply surtitles even for operas in English is often justified, but here it proves an unnecessary addition, given the crystal-clear diction of all the singers and Macrae and Welsh’s skilful teamwork on their third opera together. Ben McAteer (James) and Nicholas Sharratt (Richard) are a well-balanced combination, McAteer singing and acting powerfully throughout, Sharratt vocally more refined initially, coming into his own dramatically when cursed by his possession of the bottle. Rachel Kelly’s Catherine is at her best with the lyrical and highly emotional Scene 4 aria where she faces the probability of death. Steven Page, as the Old Man and the Vagrant, makes much of comparatively small parts, convincing physically as well as vocally and projecting an other-worldly sense of mystery.

Touring nationwide | Image: Bill Cooper

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