Review: The Duchess Of Malfi, York Settlement Community Players, York Theatre Royal Studio, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

AT its heart, John Webster's Jacobean revenge tragedy is very much akin to a modern-day thriller, asserts Settlement Players director Sam Taylor.

True to his word, the former Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actor turned theatre and film photographer delivers just such a performance in his Settlement directorial debut.

The Studio stage is all but bare, only two black square boxes remaining ever present but regularly being moved around in a restless, breathless play sped up from its original seven-year span to a pace more akin to Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet.

York Press:

Settlement Players' cast for The Duchess Of Malfi

The backdrop is the Studio's black-bricked wall, as dark as the hearts in Webster's seething drama, and such a contrast to the sparkling heels worn by Amanda Dales's widowed Duchess of Malfi, who has the accent and wardrobe of an American heiress.

Trimming Webster's text to its core, to match the sparse setting and Maurice Crichton's close-cropped hitman thug Bossola, Taylor and his excellent cast bring out both the bleak, brutal drama and the darkest humour in this tale of obsession, passion, blood-spilling and revenge.

In a nutshell, to prevent their sister, the Duchess, from marrying the man she loves, David Phllipps's horoscope-obsessed Antonio, her two sour siblings take increasingly desperate and grotesque steps to bring about her downfall. Paul French's corrupt, abusive Cardinal wears black gloves, as if to distance himself from his actions. Harry Revell, announcing a talent to watch for sure, is outstanding as Ferdinand, a dysfunctional malcontent whose jealousy sends him loco.

York Press:

Arch duke: Harry Revell as Ferdinand

All the while, Crichton's egregious Bossola goes from contract to contract, with a nod and a wink to the audience and advancement as his goal. His is the performance that most chimes with the modern set-up and meets with Taylor's desire for both humour and "grabbing the audience by the collar and taking you with us on a journey".

It is, of course, a journey heading for only one destination: hell on Earth and death, whether by suffocation or sword (the one concession to the original setting). The bodies pile up, as ever in Jacobean plays, but so do the palpable hits made by Taylor's dark and dynamic production. He even casts The Beach Boys' Don't Worry Baby in a new light, twisted and ruined forever in a death dance!

York Press:

Sealed with a fateful kiss: David Phillipps's Antonio with Amanda Dales's Duchess

There is poetry too, especially in the mouths of Dales's Duchess, in her reckless pursuit of happiness that leads to such misery around her, and in Phillipps's eloquent, exploited Antonio.

"I really want to challenge the actors to push themselves; to try new things and to work in new and exciting ways," said Taylor. They have grasped that challenge wholeheartedly, and Taylor has laid down a mission statement that demands he should present further productions in York.