The Devil's Bride

Richard Layton adapted from a story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Rumpus Theatre Company
Guildhall Theatre, Derby

Most years, there’s usually no shortage of mystery and gothic horror stories to be found in theatres all over the country around Halloween. Derbyshire-based theatre company Rumpus normally produces something of that genre for the autumn and clearly there’s an audience for it.

In 2016, Rumpus presented a new play by Chris Buxey, an admirer of 20th century American horror writer H P Lovecraft. Buxey took Lovecraft’s story The Rats in the Walls and adapted it into The Haunting of Exham Priory.

The following year, Rumpus founder John Goodrum directed and designed The Red Room, based on a short gothic story written by H G Wells in 1894. Goodrum’s wife Karen Henson penned the script and took the part of Jenny Gray in a one-woman show.

Now Richard Layton has adapted a tale by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, described by some people as the leading ghost-story writer of the 19th century. A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, not one of his best-known works, has been turned into The Devil’s Bride.

It’s the story of aspiring 17th century painter Godfried Schalken who endeavours to become the apprentice of famous artist Gerard Douw. Schalken falls in love with Douw's niece Rose and wants to marry her. But Douw achieved fame as an artist by making a pact with the Devil who appears in disguise to claim Rose for himself.

The Devil’s Bride is primarily a three-hander. Goodrum gives a glossy performance as Douw, being strict with his ward Rose because of his fatherly love for her and showing genuine remorse for sacrificing her in his desire to become a successful painter. He strips off each layer to reveal a broken man who deserves the audience’s sympathy.

David Martin, who has appeared in several gothic horrors for Rumpus, is a competent and likeable Schalken, a downtrodden man struggling to make a name for himself until he meets Douw.

Making her professional debut, Natalie Griffin impresses as Rose. It’s a colourful interpretation of a young woman divided between loyalty to her uncle and her determination to make her own way in the world. She capably goes through a range of emotions including joy, doubt, fear and anguish. Her final scene in which she changes almost beyond recognition is particularly stirring.

There’s one other performer, credited in the programme as Tim Vandardi, who appears as Wilken Vanderhausen, the heavily disguised, grotesque rival for Rose’s hand.

The expositional first half of The Devil’s Bride is slightly laboured although it adequately sets up the rest of the play and looks forward to what could be an exciting climax.

The second half though lacks tension as the production speeds to its almost inevitable conclusion. I found myself detached from the action rather than being drawn in to the horror unfolding on stage. More atmospheric music might have helped.

On the Wednesday evening I saw The Devil’s Bride, there was a clash, with the story of the artist and his apprentice coming up against Lord Sugar’s search for a new business partner on television. I managed to see the latter on catch-up. For entertainment value, the theatrical version had far more invention and polish.

Steve Orme