DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Brighton Rock – Theatre Royal, York

Writer: Graham Greene

Adapter: Bryony Lavery

Director: Esther Richardson

Composer: Hannah Peel

Designer: Sara Perks

Lighting: Aideen Malone

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Brighton Rock presents many problems to the maker of a stage adaptation. Apart from a considerable roster of characters named and unnamed, its emphasis on violence, often for its own sake, and Greene’s use of Catholic theology and the prospect of Hell to drive the plot are both, for different reasons, awkward to present on stage. Then again, it’s very location-specific – and a very distinctive location, too. In that respect, the famous 1948 film holds all the cards against a stage version.

Bryony Lavery’s adaptation for Pilot Theatre takes a boldly imaginative approach to solving the problems, justifiable, but not always convincing. The early stages, when Pinkie’s gang kills Fred Hale, the newspaper man Pinkie regards as an informer, are highly impressionistic, with synchronised moves of gangsters (not very terrifying as a group) and much running from Hale, against Sara Perks’ drably menacing and endlessly versatile set. This is punctuated by an aggressively percussive live music score – highly effective all through the performance. 

Particularly in the first half, the impressionism remains: the lights are low, the mist swirls and actors change character in a breath. In so many ways this is a difficult production to assess. The ensemble of six supporting the three main characters is admirably committed and happily embraces cross-gender casting, but the narrative impact is not helped by the number of times an actor simply looks or sounds wrong for the part: there are, too, some unexpectedly successful re-interpretations. Esther Richardson deploys her forces with great skill, though her love of the circling swirling group move becomes repetitive.

The audience’s viewpoint on the events in Brighton’s gangland is provided in this production by Ida Arnold who enunciates her sensibly simple morality at the outset. She is the woman who met Hale casually in a bar before his murder and is determined to discover what happened to him – and ends up playing detective and at the same time trying to rescue Pinkie’s young “wife” from her devotion to him. Gloria Onitiri’s splendid performance is the pivot of the production, though it’s questionable whether Graham Greene ever intended Ida to look so glamorous. But, if she looks rather too much like the great nightclub singer Elizabeth Welch for comfort, at least she does a good job on the ballads that punctuate the percussive atmospherics of Hannah Peel’s musical score – and the single-minded focus of her character is perfectly judged.

The second half of the play is more coherent, with fewer snappy short scenes, and brings the key relationship between Pinkie and Rose to the foreground in a series of troubled and troubling scenes. Sarah Middleton’s determined fragility is increasingly moving and Jacob James Beswick, somewhat on one aggressively angular note with his gang and his victims, seizes the chance to reveal his disturbed psyche in body language as much as in words.

And Lavery and Richardson know well that there is only one place to end: Pinkie’s “loving” recorded message to Rose – here left at a subtly ominous point.

Touring Nationwide | Image: Karl Andre

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Bold re-interpretation

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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