Dr Faustus, Playhouse, Liverpool

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The Independent Culture

There are many ways to interpret the richly theatrical Dr Faustus, with its spectacular effects, dancing devils and allegorical characters. So it seems perverse of Philip Wilson to direct a production that wouldn't be out of place as a student offering on the Edinburgh Fringe.

There are many ways to interpret the richly theatrical Dr Faustus, with its spectacular effects, dancing devils and allegorical characters. So it seems perverse of Philip Wilson to direct a production that wouldn't be out of place as a student offering on the Edinburgh Fringe.

With a cast of eight men, led by Nicolas Tennant as Faustus, portrayed as an unprepossessing 1950s polytechnic lecturer, it's given an authentic setting in a book-lined library. With the help of foggy mists and Oliver Fenwick's spooky lighting, the scene changes are managed well enough, and the ticking clock and chiming church bell are vague reminders that time is moving on. Yet the surface of the work's theatrical potential is barely scratched, far less penetrated, unlike Faustus's arm which is first cut and then burnt during his painful pact with the devil.

Opting for the shorter version of Christopher Marlowe's text, with an additional cut of some 160 lines, Wilson has compressed the 24 years of Faustus's life of supernatural power and knowledge into an hour- and-a-half's straight run. Given the amount of Latin spoken at the beginning, and the added element of a whispering chorus, you need your wits about you to follow the reasoning behind, and the consequences of, Faustus's outlandish adventures and devilish encounters.

This show is neither sumptuous nor exotic but, on the positive side, there is no sensationalism and scarcely any gimmicks - the magic is modest, the grotesque elements played down. Tennant plays Faust as an oddly ordinary if class-conscious character, with the result that the central role of this great though flawed work is reduced to little more than a biographical sketch. With the exception of Faustus and manipulative Mephistopheles - who, interpreted by Jamie Bamber in crumpled suit and trainers, was clearly a winner as far as the teenage audience around me was concerned - the rest of the parts are doubled and more, in some cases sextupled.

When the wife Faustus is offered by Mephistopheles turns out to be a lewd devil dressed as a whore, the moment is fudged and there's not a flicker of eroticism in Faustus's wooing of Helen of Troy. How could there be when "the face that launched a thousand ships" is a statuesque lad in drag?

Other scenes, such as Faustus's taunting of the Pope, are more effectively handled; the image of Alexander the Great and his wife is presented as a golden tableau, and the pulling of Faust's leg by the Horse-courser is given a horribly realistic twist.

But of the supposedly sensational displays put on by the Devil to keep Faustus happy, the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins is little more than a procession of schoolboy antics. Perhaps Wilson, one of theatre's most promising young directors, needs to spend more time consulting his director's book of magic.

To 26 February (0151-709 4776)

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