Brighton Rock – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Bryony Lavery, from the book by Graham Greene

Director: Esther Richardson

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

There’s a power vacuum in Brighton’s underworld. Gangleader Kite is dead and the remains of his gang are in thrall to Pinkie. Just 17, Pinkie is a natural leader for the gang, ruthless and cunning, but can he win over Kite’s protection clients or will they switch allegiance to rival Colleoni? Pinkie and his gang hear that the man they blame for Kite’s death, ‘Fred’ is in town. They chase after him for retribution. In fear for his life, Fred befriends Ida before they are separated and Fred winds up dead. Ida has a strong sense of right and wrong and feels that Fred needs justice, starting to ask awkward questions. Spicer, an older member of Pinkie’s gang, has set a false alibi for him, but naïve sixteen-year-old waitress Rose unwittingly has information that could demolish it. Can Ida get to the bottom of things? Pinkie sets out to prevent that – befriending Rose and gaining her trust; Rose despite (or maybe because of) Pinkie’s boorish behaviour towards her becomes besotted. But as events spiral out of Pinkie’s control, just how far will the young pretender go to maintain his freedom and his place in the underworld?

This is a dark tale, indeed. It’s hard to believe that the book on which it’s based hails from 1938: it feels totally contemporary. Complementing the darkness of the tale is the monochromatic quality of Sara Perk’s multi-level set. Aideen Malone’s lighting is used effectively to create murky pools of light and dark. Characters somehow emerge from the gloom even as the set is fluidly moved to depict different locations Members of the underworld are easily recognisable by their black dress: Ida is a striking contrast in glorious red, while Rose is more dowdy. This black-and-white theme mirrors the characters, too: Pinkie seems irredeemably evil, Rose is a committed Catholic with a clear view of what constitutes sin, the secular Ida is on a moral crusade. Director Esther Richardson has taken Bryony Lavery’s adaptation and brought it to swaggering and disturbing life with never a second wasted. Supporting the action is Hannah Peel’s original music: the action’s driving heartbeat, it also occasionally blossoms into sweetness as Ida sings atmospherically – betraying a quite superb voice from Gloria Onitiri in the process.

Central is Onitiri’s Ida. She brings strength to her as she tries simultaneously to get justice for Fred and to protect Rose from herself. A superb performance full of nuance – Ida clearly hasn’t led a totally blameless life herself, for example, it’s not totally clear what her intentions are towards her beau, Phil (Chris Jack) as he is roped in to helping her on her crusade and is rewarded in the only way she knows.

Jacob James Beswick’s Pinkie is an outstanding piece of characterisation. Beswick struts around the stage like a peacock, preening himself in front of his adoring acolytes. He seems quite incorrigible, only showing occasional tenderness when he needs Rose onside – and even that is the thinnest of veneers. And the third member of this triumvirate is Sarah Middleton’s Rose: how she desperately wants to love and be loved. And if she can’t be loved in return, being needed (for any reason) is enough. She never descends into self-pity at her treatment from Pinkie.

The supporting cast moves effortlessly between multiple rôles, also swapping genders as necessary, so while Angela Bains appears briefly as Rose’s mother, she is also totally believable as Spicer, Pinkie’s lieutenant, and as a priest – among other rôles.

This adaptation is striking in so many ways – visually, aurally and in the way it puts Ida and her crusade at the centre. Lavery has some form for visually striking pieces – her award-winning Frozen currently runs in the West End. Richardson says that producer Pilot Theatre strives to produce ‘grown-up work for younger audiences’: Brighton Rock is certainly a grown-up work and one that will live in the memory of young and old well after the applause dies down.

Runs until 14 April 2018 and on tour | Image: Karl Andre

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

A compelling tale of darkness and light

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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