FringeReview UK 2018
Esther Richardson debuts as Pilot director in this rendering of Bryony Lavery’s adaptation. The cast spin out in Jennifer Jackson’s movement. Sara Perks’ gantry set evokes the West Pier after rather than before the fire, swung round in Aideen Malone’s smoggy lighting. Hannah Peel’s Kurt Weill-and-Hammond-organ score boasts two live instrumentalists topped by Gloria Onitiri’s singing.
Eyebrows and more might have been raised if, after its initial run with co-producers Theatre Royal York the new touring company Pilot hadn’t started at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. Brighton Rock is more than iconic Greene-land; it’s partly shaped Brighton in a kind of defining retrospect. Even the bendy coppers didn’t evaporate for several decades.
Esther Richardson’s debut as Pilot director triumphs in this superbly staged rendering of Bryony Lavery’s adaptation. The cast spin out in Jennifer Jackson’s evocatively restless movement. Sara Perks’ gantry set evoking the West Pier after rather than before the fire, pivots with actors swung round in Aideen Malone’s smoggy lighting. Hannah Peel’s superb Kurt Weill-and-Hammond-organ score with two live instrumentalists is topped by Gloria Onitiri’s singing her way through set numbers in the redefined role of Ida, with a smoky magnificence.
Lavery’s returned to criminal territory she explored in her early Frozen, also revived recently. But Greene’s heady mix of motiveless malignity and Catholic damnation stems from his own theological darkness. The boy psychopath Pinky who paradoxically believes in his own damnation is a walking contradiction. Such men are usually narcissists. Pinky’s all-too-soon scarred face makes him more kin to Gormenghast’s ghoulish Steerpike than any case study we’d dare essay now. Pinky paraphrases 1890s poet Lionel Johnson’s assertion of ‘the utter vulgarity of those who refuse to believe in eternal damnation.’ Feel the burn.
Put it another way, Lavery’s faced with fantastical bones in a story with the marrow hollowed out. Orwell didn’t believe its premise in 1938; we’re still less prone to now. Though should we believe in avenging angel Ida, a happily pleasuring woman who – fancying a man she meets for ten minutes – somehow scents out the fact he’s been murdered; then contrary to cooked evidence even the police connive at, then hunts down his killer?
Lavery’s more comfortable with that and says emphatically yes. She foregrounds Ida in making her protagonist and through-line agent of retribution. What Lavery gives us in this extraordinarily adroit production is more of Onitiri’s superb Ida, less of Pinky.
He’s here faceted like a broken-off razor by Jacob James Beswick, with a latterly burnt-looking baby face and a tinge of misogyny. Beswick is superb as the relatively pint-sized pro who can muscle menace into much bigger men. His gaunt stare, his haunted premonition of the damnation he looks for, embodies much a merely efficient actor would let evaporate. Not here. His voice pierces with its own narrow-bore agency; a digital laser diametrically opposed to Onitiri’s analogue amplitude, perhaps.
Greene and Lavery hint part of his rationale is suppressed homoeroticism; seeing Pinky’s attracted only to Rose, and that fleetingly, even that reading’s a dead end. There’s still enough of Pinky, and his Catholicism isn’t skimped. But Lavery’s emphatic repetition of Ida’s ‘right and wrong’ suggests humanist morality, not theology, is what matters to us – and what she’s comfortable exploring. That isn’t Greene very exactly, but it’s the most persuasive Brighton Rock we have.
Rose too hardens and softens as the production progresses. There’s glints of her mettle. Sarah Middleton’s naïve girl shows steeliness and resolve in securing then standing by her man and indeed readiness to fall to death with him, with just a shiver of youthful life-force to prevent her. Whereas it’s difficult to believe Pinky is seventeen, except in his Manichean absolutes, particularly teenage, it’s believable in Middleton’s Rose. Her occasional fierceness, her softening into desire and womanhood, is heartwarming till you remember who she bestows it on, and what he thinks of her.
There’s so much to recommend here. The swift theatre business of tables with tablecloths snatched in a simultaneous dance routine, the movement of perilous wheeled steps for victims to tumble up and down and later as the fulcrum of consummation. And a splashy, thrilling fall caught by others from its top. All these moments detail images of the novel translated memorably into an evening of fluidity and moderated religion.
There’s fine work too from movement director Jennifer Jackson herself, as a feminized Mrs Colleoni, Shamira Turner as piddling lawyer Prewitt, Dorian Simpson as Pinky’s hulking minder Dallow who finally turns a heart; Chris Jack as Ida’s complaining but equally loyal sidekick Phil, given a wonderful set of shrugs; Marc Graham’s muscle-bound drinker Cubitt and Angela Bain’s hapless Spicer, a superbly ungrateful peach of a role.
Greene’s original will continue to tease with its unrelieved intensity, its terrible certainties and its final lines bearing on ‘the worst truth of all’. But till someone can convince a secular age of Greene’s core shudder – something he himself moved away from – this adaptation, and this production, is as good as it gets.