The Devil Inside

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

I RECALL a promising, but slightly a-cursed, production by Gerry Mulgrew's Communicado company, but Robert Louis Stevenson's 1891 short story The Bottle Imp has not, as far I am aware, made a successful transition to the stage. Until now, that is, for this adaptation of the clever tale of a wish-granting little demon who damns everyone tempted by its possession, is a triumph that exceeds the comparatively small scale of the forces it requires. The story is revealed to be as resonant for these times as Jekyll and Hyde has always remained in the public mind.

The work of what is now a mature collaboration between Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, and at its heart between composer Stuart MacRae and his librettist Louise Welsh, The Devil Inside has a cast of just four, a band of 14 musicians and clever monochrome and shadow-play design by Samal Bak that is clearly intended to adapt to much small stages to which it tours after this Glasgow premiere. But musically it is big stuff, demanding much of everyone involved. Welsh's bold stroke is to update the tale to the present with all the obsessions and vices of contemporary society, and that is clear from the first entry of gap-year back-packers Richard (Nicholas Sharratt) and James (Ben McAteer), climbing onstage from the pit, in director Matthew Richardson's production, which cleverly exists as much in the mind's eye as is made literal on stage.

The evocative, expressionist score is full of edgy interjections by the players and captivating details, like the querulous voice of the imp sometimes a rapid strumming of the highest notes on Pippa Tunnell's harp. It also contains some remarkable vocal writing, the aria before the interval when Catherine (Rachel Kelly) reveals her illness as captivating as it is terrifying. But that is only one of many edge-of-the-seat moments in a consistently dramatic contemporary opera boasting superb performances, with Sharratt's characterisation of Richard particularly outstanding.

As the Rorschach blots of the second act set suggest, there are layers of psychological mystery explored, but at its simplest this is a scary parable of the evils of greed and how the lure of something-for-nothing brings out the worst in everyone. Lottery monies were, significantly, not involved in its creation.

Further Scottish performances at the Theatre Royal tomorrow and Edinburgh King's on Friday and Saturday.