The door to the church slams closed, and a charismatic but dishevelled man walks out onto the stage. We can call him John, he says, but we might know him as Johann: Johann Faust, a man of legend, the hedonist who sold his soul to the devil. Tonight a demon has come to chase up John’s debt, and it’s lurking just outside that sealed door. The good news is that John himself is safe from the devil’s clutches… but the bad news is, we might not be.
A few minutes earlier – before I was admitted to the church – I’d been asked to sign a lengthy disclaimer, filled with references to subliminal triggers and the “altered mental state” the show would put me into. Perhaps that’s just ballyhoo, but this much I can attest: The Devil Without really does mess with your mind. At times you’re battered with disorientating sound waves; every now and then, I was sure I’d caught a flash of light out of the corner of my eye. As a kind of warm-up, you’ll be asked to picture the thing that scares you most, though in compensation you’ll learn a surprisingly effective technique to make the terror go away.
There’s some genuine science and psychology at work here, but The Devil Without is at its core a magic show. To be honest, I’d have liked a little more magic; the narrative opens with a lengthy chunk of back-story, which is engaging enough to hold your interest but needs something extra to bring it fully to life. But once things get going, they really get going, breaking out of the comforting routines of stage illusion and becoming both strident and fresh. The finale hits a note of intensity rarely achieved in a Fringe production, and I can honestly say – as someone who’s seen a lot of magic – that I walked out of the church genuinely perplexed about what had just occurred.
The theatrical elements still have some room to grow. Ian Harvey Stone commands the stage impressively – even in the cavernous surroundings of the church – and the character he portrays is a thoroughly believable one. But the emotion is a little lacking; he doesn’t appear especially frightened, nor as exhausted as a man should be after running from the devil for the past 400 years. To be fair, the plot does tell us that this is second nature to him now, but it still feels like there are missed opportunities here to plant some additional portent and unease.
Nevertheless, if you surrender to the mood and immerse yourself in the story, The Devil Without will reward you with a handful of thrilling scares. And if – like me – you’re an aficionado of stage magic, then you’re sure to admire the way some familiar tricks are re-mixed and re-combined in service of the plot. Making the most of this show takes a little bit of nerve, a willingness to go with it, and a decent slug of your own imagination. But it’s worth the effort – because this unique experience may possess your thoughts for some time to come.