Saturday 3rd March 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal have joined to bring this dark and brooding adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the stage. Adapted by Bryony Lavery and directed by Esther Richardson, Brighton Rock offers a dramatic play which falls somewhere between Peaky Blinders and Bugsy Malone in style as it works to capture the mob culture in Brighton in the 1930s while lapsing into dark comedy every now and then. This thriller works hard to capture the sense of threat and suspense pervading an area with mobsters around every corner with design elements from Sara Perks, Hannah Peel and Aileen Malone combining brilliantly for maximum impact. A fellow named Fred is bumped off early on, leading to desperate attempts to cover backs and an irritating do-gooder hunting down answers she would be better off running from. A connection with a local girl is begrudgingly made by the man-child Pinkie, who is heading the local mob. There’s certainly drama and suspense, but the production lacks depth and offers up primarily two dimensional characters to run through a fast moving narrative and while that does entertain, it fails to match the sharp design elements which carry this piece along with style and substance.Jacob James Beswick takes the lead role as Pinkie – new to the lead role in the local mob, he feels the pressure of his position constantly. Beswick’s performance is an intense one – he paces the stage like a haunted man and his face is never too far from signs of his internal struggle; smiles are few but frowns, scowls and snarls are abundant. Pinkie’s youth leads to rash decisions and escalations with dangerous consequences. He finds himself tied to Rose, a local waitress who has the power to be his undoing but for some unknown reason he can’t bump her off the way he does the male threats. He loathes her and manipulates her with ease while convincing her of his care and affection – it’s a duplicitous dynamic which offers up some moments of humour at Rose’s expense. Sarah Middleton’s performance as Rose doesn’t just place the character as young, naïve and infatuated. It places Rose as somewhat of a simpleton who has had her rose tinted glasses surgically attached; she comes from parents depicted emphatically as uneducated and scheming while she faces Pinkie’s unstable and threatening behaviour with breathless sighs containing his name. Middleton’s performance portrays Rose’s blind infatuation with credibility, but when Rose speaks Pinkie’s name at the end of every sentence like a brainless robot, it denies the character any sense of progression. There are definitely some sore lost opportunities for subtlety in this piece which almost always favours bold strokes over nuance.Into the disturbing mix of mobster and simple, infatuated girl comes Ida; a local woman with a steadfast ideal of justice for a man she met briefly who has been found dead. At first hoping to track down those responsible for the stranger’s death, she latches onto the notion of saving Rose as an additional cause for good. While the narrative for the character is loose, Gloria Onitiri’s performance is excellent; full of determination and an awe inspiring confidence when placed beside the vulnerable Rose. Onitiri provides both a strong female performance within a story of male domination and violence as well as acting as narrator as she sings an interlude with a velvet voice or addresses us directly with dramatic declarations and food for thought. The ensemble often multi-role with impressively swift costume changes and distinctively varied characters, but it is Angela Bain who excels as Spicer and various other roles. As Spicer, Bain offers us a rare glimpse of a character with tangible depth as she presents a man struggling with a niggling conscience as the events around him escalate alarmingly. Pinkie invites no warmth and our sympathy for Rose is challenged by the single track nature of her dialogue but in Spicer we have heart and a real sense of consternation. Jennifer Jackson makes another impressive array of appearances as numerous minor characters as well as Colleoni while Chris Jack provides another glimpse of a mobster battling a growing conscience while also doubling as Ida’s endearingly infatuated companion, Phil.Although the production features some wonderful performances, it is the overall design and atmosphere created by the design that really excel in this play. It is Hannah Peel’s brilliant music which provides the most drama in the piece, with sinister and suspenseful underscoring throughout which manages to create anticipation where there may otherwise have been none. Stage design from Sara Perks offers an underground element above ground, with bare steel scaffolding and indications of landmarks rather than attempts to recreate them with realism. It’s a dark, atmospheric set which sets the tone for a brooding narrative of unsteady quality, allowing the band to be just visible in the shadows as they intensify key moments with sound. Perk’s costume designs offer the classic sights of the 1930s and the suits of the mobsters are classic – three piece with hats drawn down over eyes to create maximum impact as the intimidating figures close in on victim after victim. Aideen Malone’s lighting is another source of visual drama, shifting in both intensity and hue throughout to map the tensions of the plot as the heavy use of smoke is given greater impact for Malone’s lighting designs.
Unfortunately though, some heavy handedness with scripting allow some moments to feel more spoof than intense thriller. 1930s mobster slang is prominent throughout and for the most part, it works well to conjure the period and style, but some of the slang is over-used to the point that it loses dramatic impact – ‘milky’ is used so often that it seems to become a running joke rather than the heavy insult it is intended to be. Meanwhile obvious lines are delivered when they don’t need to be said at all – forcing a great actress like Onitiri to play clunky moments more suited to farce than a serious thriller – ‘it can’t have been him’ she pointlessly offers after contemplating revelations aloud – as I awaited the clichéd accompaniment of ‘dun dun duuuuuhn’…which thankfully didn’t arrive.Brighton Rock fits the bill as a thriller primarily through design and this production serves the period and the style well, despite niggling flaws with a lack of subtlety and depth. Richardson’s direction is often stylish and creates some great noir visuals of the hunter and hunted while stylised movements of the ensemble in the margins offer a surreal quality to some scenes as Peel’s music stealthily haunts from the background. The narrative is pacy and the performances are strong, with some scenes intended to be deeply dramatic very well played indeed. I’m just not convinced that this production of Brighton Rock has the ability to shock, grip and wow a modern audience the way a truly great thriller does, despite all the well captured suspense along the way.
Pilot Theatre’s Brighton Rock will tour the UK until May 26th 2018 and you can find more information here.