Theatre Review: Brighton Rock (Birmingham REP)

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Brighton Rock
By Graham Greene
Adapted by Bryony Lavery
Birmingham REP

Review by Georgia Kelly

Graham Greene’s infamous novel comes to life on stage with Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of Brighton Rock. Combining live music, pulsing movement, and striking performances, the latest show to take to the Birmingham REP stage is an impressive dissection of morality that is played out with stark brutality and resilience from every character swept up in the underhand events that consume them.

Brighton Rock is set in 1930’s Brighton, with Ida Arnold away on a break to the sunny attractions of the seaside. It’s there she meets Frank Hale, a frightened man who clings to her like a port in a storm. Even if only for a short time. Ida turns her back and suddenly Frank is gone. Not long after his body is found underneath Brighton Pier. What follows is Ida’s determined efforts to find out just what had Frank so scared, and what really happened to him under the pier. Her search leads us right into the path of Pinkie, the seventeen-year-old leader of a Brighton mob. As Ida begins to unravel the real story of what happened to Frank, Pinkie is tying up the loose ends, one of whom becomes the focal point for both characters goals: Rose. The young waitress who’s seen something she shouldn’t. Every character in ‘Brighton Rock’ has their own ideas about right and wrong, and it’s this that drives them headlong into each other. Will the truth out? Or is someone else destined to end up under the pier?

Bryony Lavery is the writer behind this unique adaptation. Though I have never read the original novel the comments from other audience members seemed to sing its praises throughout, and the praises of the stage version as a considered and well-constructed adaptation. If nothing else it leaves those who hadn’t read the book wanting to, myself included. It can feel as though there are subtleties in the script that hint toward details of the novel, but sometimes they slip through the cracks left by bigger, more violent plot points. However, the script takes a very different approach than other adaptations of the past. Director Esther Richardson comments on how Ida Arnold, the play’s lead, is often ‘overlooked’ in other versions. As someone who has had limited experience of other interpretations of the story, this seems almost unthinkable, as Gloria Onitiri plays a perfect leading lady with her portrayal of Ida, full of fire and faith.

The performances from these three main players in the game are striking and without remorse. Onitiri’s Ida is fuelled by romantic loyalty to a man she didn’t know and had no business knowing. Much like Rose, how much does she really know Pinkie? Nevertheless, she had unfaltering loyalty to him. But she is not simply a lovesick puppy, Sarah Middleton as Rose gives her a growing determination and even bite as the play progresses. Rose seems to be playing her own game, in which a future with Pinkie is the prize. Of course, Jacob James Beswick demands your attention as the imposing, intimidating Pinky. Unsettling and restless, certainly a man you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. But Beswick has such command of the role that the small shifts of Pinkie’s confidence in his ‘green’ moments seem almost effortless.

Brighton Rock is a feast for the eyes and ears. With the gorgeous and versatile setting of a decaying Brighton pier designed by Sarah Perks, as well as the brutal and unsettling music composed by Hannah Peel that is offset by the hopeful lyrics of the songs written for the production, sung hauntingly by Onitiri.

All of these elements come together to form a suspenseful and unnerving night of theatre. You’ll leave wondering whether exactly you do know what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and whether the belief should put you in the path of dangerous strangers. How far is too far? Who was really right? You’ll have to find that out for yourself. But one thing is for certain, you’ll never look at a stick of Brighton rock the same again.

Brighton Rock is playing at The Birmingham REP from 10th – 14th April. Find all the information on further tour dates around the UK at www.pilot-theatre.com

★★★★