Melmoth the Wanderer

Big Telly Theatre Company invoke Hell with masks, Fairy Liquid and a whole lot of laughs

Did you hear the one about the church choir, the devil and the Spanish inquisition?

Yes, on the face of it, the plot of Melmoth The Wanderer reads like a deliciously terrible gag, but that really is the point of Big Telly Theatre Company's Faustian farce, which arrives at The Mac in Belfast after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

A loose reimagining of the notorious gothic novel of the same name by Irish clergyman and uncle of Oscar Wilde, Charles Maturin, this five-person play tells the story of a stereotypically happy-clappy small-town church choir and their dealings with a tormented stranger, who insists that they read the demonic tale he carries on his person.

What unfolds is a chaotic whirlwind of a show, with the stranger gradually revealing his true sinister identity to the choir through a series of vignettes that they begrudgingly take part in. The line between what is real and imaginary is constantly blurred, with a non-linear narrative rattling along at breakneck speed.

There is a central plot, however, that revolves around Melmoth himself – a tragic despot who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for 150 years of life and the neat ability to travel between planes of existence.

Although things start out peachy for Melmoth – who, as part of the bargain, must spend all his free time in the employ of Old Scratch separating poor misfits from their souls – he soon begins to resent his terrible pact when he falls in love. Thereafter, he decides he wants out.

For fans of German expressionist horror films, this might all sound fairly by the book. Yet thanks to a madcap and endlessly inventive script, this Big Telly production, fizzing with innovation, constantly thrills.

Melmoth’s tale is told in part by booming narrator Simon Yadoo, who coerces the painfully twee choir members – fresh from a hugely ambitious site-specific ‘South Pacific’ – into acting out Melmoth's demonic fate as he is sucked into the belly of Hell itself.

Some detractors might complain that Melmoth The Wanderer never seems to know what it wants to be, with proceedings thigh-slappingly hilarious one minute and stomach-churningly horrific the next. However, once the viewer accepts that this is truly an anything-goes production, it is easy to relax and enjoy the ride.

Furthermore, the laughs – of which there are many, thanks largely to supporting actor Keith Singleton and his Dougal Maguire on crack asides – serve to disarm the audience, making the atrocities, which include acts of cannibalism, familicide and infanticide, even more horrific.

My only complaint is that an elongated pantomime third act loses the run of itself, with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga jokes feeling tacked on and gratuitous. It is clear that plenty of the dialogue is improvised – as with a scene that relies heavily on audience involvement – but this doesn't always work. The scripted sections are much stronger, as when a hulking Jan Svankmajer puppet feasts on a live tortoise ‘like he’s wearing a human nosebag’.

Regardless, Melmoth The Wanderer is an absolute hoot from beginning to end, with plenty of belly laughs and genuine scares along the way. The props are particularly memorable, including a fully functional torture rack and a beautiful backdrop created with nothing more than Fairy Liquid on an overhead projector.

The five actors do more with an empty box and a set of comedia dell’arte masks than Hollywood can do with seven Saw flicks. And when the ouroboros ending rolls around, the Voltaire quote about how you ‘have to have the devil in you to succeed in any of the arts’ springs to mind. Whether or not that is true is another matter, but tonight Big Telly prove that it helps, at least.

Melmoth the Wanderer runs in The MAC, Belfast until September 14.