Categories: Theatre, Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal.
Caroline Tomlinson’s beautiful, but unsettling, illustration for Pilot Theatre’s production of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, is the first point of contact that most will have with Bryony Lavery’s new stage adaptation of the work; before any trailers are watched or blurbs read, this is what will decide for many whether they want to buy a ticket or pass the production by, and it deserves full acknowledgement and credit for the intelligent care with which it has been executed. A stylised postcard of the Palace Pier reduced to stark, dark silhouette, birds ominously circling in Hitchcock-esque menace, scribbled mark-making and fabric texture waves echoing the lines of the steel substructure; the word ‘Rock’ picked out in a blood red font. It’s an illustration that immediately tells us this isn’t going to be a cosy tale of a seaside romance. Greene’s previous novel, ‘A Gun For Sale’ mentioned the murder of gang boss Kite, whom Hale had betrayed by writing a newspaper article outlining a slot machine racket controlled by the gang; now Pinkie is gang leader and the events of Brighton Rock are set in motion.
Greene first published his consistently allegorical and symbolic novel ‘Brighton Rock’ in 1938, a time when the events that were to lead to World War Two were gathering pace, England was already in decline and economic stagnation; stuttering its way forward from the 1926 General Strike and the nearest Britain had come in the twentieth century to violent revolution. Whilst he has the virtue of verisimilitude in the ‘feel’ of a 1930’s British seaside resort, there is a jarring sense of being 'off centre' as the two ‘isms’ – Catholicism and Socialism – fight to describe the fallen world and present a critique of it. This complexity and contradiction with all its ensuing themes and the need to make it relevant to an audience of today ensures that Greene’s work would never be an easy one to adapt for stage presentation, and indeed there are aspects that most certainly should not be included. Adaptation has been made a number of times, none really achieving the depth of the piece. Bryony Lavery has boxed clever by eschewing an attempt to be faithful to the text of the original in all its exactitude, but, rather, exploring key themes and giftedly re-wrapping the story around them. By focusing on the youth of Pinkie and Rose and upon the innate goodness of the older Ida - the only one of the trio whose principles are not dictated by religious indoctrination, Lavery has crafted a bildungsroman with a brutish kick up the backside, but one in which all the central characters remain faithful to the source material in their one-eyed perspectives.
The tight synthesis of the production continues with Sara Perk’s set and costume design, carrying through the black and red colourways and utilising an understated, but supremely effective, scaffolding to mark strict boundaries of place and space in the gangland turf. It’s a scenography that calls for every mark and movement to be edged with an equal discipline. Esther Richardson, as director, and Jennifer Jackson, as movement director, have ensured that happens with a style and elegance that is exquisite to watch. The ‘Dark Angels’ draw the audience with mesmeric sinister grace, slipping in and out of the shadows, slithering into and shedding characters, evoking changing atmospheres with cosa nostra charm.
Jacob James Beswick is an actor who knows how to show character empathy through every fingertip and facial twitch and his casting as the deeply troubled anti-hero Pinkie is perfect. Pinkie is complex; determined, calculating and intelligent; driven by a need to feel safe; raised in poverty and squalor, displaying that emotional detachment that so often accompanies social deprivation; incapable of remorse and yet with moments of intense vulnerability and humanity; having an aversion to sex, love and marriage after witnessing his parents’ Saturday night copulations; an uneasy kind of belonging and power in the gang, manipulative and with a theological indoctrination that allows a feral young man to flow without a breath from the gratuitous murder of another to reciting the chants of the Roman mass in impeccable Latin. Lavery has very gently softened Grahame’s implication that Pinkie is purely of Satan for whom ‘Credo in unum Satanum’ is more significant than ‘Credo in unum Deum’, not totally obliterating his cruelty, moments of pure hatred and his belief that hell is all around him, but ameliorating their impact, sympathetically airing him as someone still very young who has had to assimilate a great deal of pain and imposed guilt without either the maturity to deal with it or the counsel of wise adults; a valuable text decision that Beswick handles with profound care.
Despite the murders, the main victim of the story is Rose, poor and vulnerable, manipulated and abused throughout. Sara Middleton plays the teenager in awe of Pinkie admirably, falling for the belief that he loves her, despite his callous words and treatment, in a sad echo of the way that legions of emotionally naïve young women, desperate to be cherished, have been duped and betrayed since the dawn of time. Through her association with Pinkie, we watch as some of her goodness and belief systems slip away, replaced by her blinkered loyalty to a murderer, and she is not ashamed of committing a 'mortal sin' - sleeping with Pinkie without a church wedding. The morning after, she wakes up in Pinkie's room, about to mutter her quick 'Our Father' and 'Hail Marys' when she remembers, but what would be the good in praying now? She has chosen her side and if they damned him then they would have to damn her too. When Ida intervenes in the worst trick of all, Rose is far from grateful, still believing that Pinkie loved her. Widowed, with child, and waiting to hear the words that will reveal Pinkie’s utter revulsion of her, we leave the theatre knowing that she is about to undergo a painful metamorphosis that will hurl her out of her naivety and into adult reality, hoping with all our hearts that an Ida is there somewhere to cradle her through.
Ida is the antithesis of Pinkie in so many ways; the goodness to counter his evil. She has the knowledge of years and experience that allows her to be confident, kind and unafraid to stick to her principles in the face of frightening opposition. Ida lives life to the full, comfortable with intimacy and embracing the good things that come her way. She's irreligious, practical, funny, sexy, superstitious and doggedly determined. Gloria Onitiri is more than delicious in portraying wonderful Ida, oozing sensual possession of the stage. Greene described his Ida as having a 'rich Guinness voice'; Onitiri's own is liquid gold and the songs Hannah Peel has composed for the show are delivered beautifully. Ida wants to save Rose from Pinkie as much as she is motivated to pursue her own quest for justice, but Rose will have none of it, right to the end. The wisdom of age is lost on the young.
As Esther Richardson's first production for Pilot Theatre since taking the role of Artistic Director, 'Brighton Rock' is astute, shrewd and eminently stylish.
(Seen at Hull Truck Theatre)
Brighton Rock can be seen at
27 Mar - 31 Mar 2018
10 Apr - 14 Apr 2018
Theatre Royal Winchester
19 Apr - 21 Apr 2018
24 Apr - 28 Apr 2018
7 May - 5 May 2018
8 May - 12 May 2018
15 May - 19 May 2018
The Lowry, Salford
22 May - 26 May 2018