The Devil Masters

Dec 11 2014 | By More

✭✭✩✩✩  Lacks bite

Traverse Theatre: Wed 10 – Wed 24 Dec 2014

Uneven and stiltedly political, The Devil Masters is a peculiar festive offering from the Traverse.

The premiere of Iain Finlay Macleod’s play is an obvious attempt to provide an alternative to more glitzy Christmas fare. However, it is a confused affair that does not succeed on that level, or on many others.

John Bett and Barbara Rafferty in The Devil Masters. Photo Mihaela Bodlovic

John Bett and Barbara Rafferty in The Devil Masters. Photo Mihaela Bodlovic

Well-heeled, dog-obsessed Edinburgh couple Cameron and Lara Leishman are relaxing in their Edinburgh flat on Christmas Eve. They are both advocates – the title refers to legal jargon relating to the mentoring of young lawyers. John, a representative of a much less privileged sector of society, is soon to invade their domestic complacency.

The main problem with the production is that it never seems to be sure of what it wants to be. The title suggests something very spooky, but the box set and much of the dialogue hint at a drawing-room comedy. Then there are elements of magic realism and layers of political satire. The abiding tone is of black comedy – but it is neither dark enough nor comic enough to impress on those terms.

The social comment is scattergun in its approach, and occasionally jarringly obvious and didactic. The three characters are well beyond caricature, and suffer from performances that vary widely in tone and effect. John Bett’s Cameron is like something out of a gentle sitcom, while Barbara Rafferty’s Lara is much broader and Keith Fleming, as John, veers between the genuinely threatening and the comically overplayed.

uncomfortably stretched out

The first half at least is performed with some kind of drive and energy, with director Orla O’Loughlin wringing every last drop out of the material. However, the second act seems completely unnecessary, with the supposed twists and turns being of little interest, not least because it is impossible to care greatly about any of the characters. In truth, there is barely enough material for a one-act play here, and it comes across as uncomfortably stretched out.

The Devil Masters Set by Anthony Lambie. With Keith Fleming. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

The Devil Masters Set by Anthony Lambie. With Keith Fleming. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

The narrative combines the realistic – notably echoed by Anthony Lambie’s excellent New Town front room set – with something much more fantastic. However, the more realistic part of it is undermined by a plot that bears very little scrutiny, while the less realistic elements lack conviction and brio, and come across as unexpectedly pantomimish – but not in a good way.

When it comes down to it, the production is just not funny enough. The biggest laughs (such as they are) come from such novel ideas as Glaswegians being foul-mouthed and Jack Vettriano being ‘self-taught’ – which doesn’t say much for the rest of the material.

Too often swearing is used for supposedly comic effect. This soon palls, as it is done with so little apparent relish. When the rare moments of violence occur, they seem so stilted and badly choreographed that they have little impact.

Occasionally, there is a hint of interesting social comment, but it is soon lost. A truly alternative Christmas entertainment, which was much more extreme in its depiction of class conflict, could have been interesting. As it stands, this seems too determined not to offend the real-life Camerons and Laras of Edinburgh, and falls between two stools.

Running time 1 hour 45 minutes including interval
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street EH1 2ED
Wednesday 10 – Wednesday 24 December 2014
Tue-Sat 7.30pm (not Wed 24); Sat matinee: 2.30pm (also Wed 24).
Details and tickets from


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