Musical: Faust goes North

STIFF ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE EDINBURGH

AS ANYONE who's followed the Martin Guerre saga will be keenly aware, launching a new musical is an occupation for neither the faint of heart nor the light of pocket. Launching a new Scottish musical, a genre notable to date for Brigadoon and little else, would seem an even chancier proposition. Yet it was clear on a packed-to-capacity opening night that Forbes Masson's ebullient reworking of the Faust legend had scored a hit.

While Scotland may lack a tradition of musicals as such, it boasts its own still hugely popular legacy of variety and music-hall. It's on this heritage, among others, that Masson has drawn, evoking the appeal of comedians such as Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton and Chic Murray, within a framework that none the less rejoices in its contemporaneity, with topical jokes flying thick and fast.

George Mathieson (Masson) is the youngest son in a family of monumental masons from the cheerless small town of Driech. In desperation over his dead-end life, he sells his soul to a devil (called Neville) in exchange for artistic fame, wealth and a clinch with the glamorous Helena Detroit, wife of a local gangster-turned-aspiring MP. Along the way, a near-death experience offers us a glimpse of a heaven peopled by cloud-knitting cherubs in gold lame Y-fronts and improbable wigs, George's dastardly brothers meet a chilly end, his ex-girlfriend reappears as a singing nun, and God himself pops up in James Bond guise.

Burlesque and pastiche (not to mention blasphemy) are very much the order of the day, expertly configured and laced with plenty of pawky one-liners and beautifully timed bathos. West End/ Lloyd Webber-style musicals are mercilessly sent up, together with sideswipes at New Labour, Presbyterianism, Damien Hirst, Braveheart and the BSE crisis, along with a host of Scottish shibboleths, in songs chock-full of agile wordplay and audacious rhymes.

Another key to the production's success is its casting of actors who sing, rather than singers who attempt to act, so that its verbal and dramatic dimensions contribute dynamically to the whole instead of merely filling in between numbers. Robert Carr and Robert Paterson turn in a superb series of double acts; Tom McGovern makes a wonderfully laid-back but charismatic devil, while Masson himself combines suitably geeky haplessness with sprightly energy. The narrative structure is a trifle erratic, but the show's sparkle and swagger are as life-affirming as its ultimate carpe diem message.

To 8 May (0131-229 9697), then touring to Stirling, Dundee and Glasgow to 5 June

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