The Almeida stages an annual season of contemporary opera but, in its 24-year history as a producing theatre, it has not staged a musical - until now. The arrival of Brighton Rock is therefore a welcome foray into a terrain that the Almeida’s main studio rival, the Donmar Warehouse, has long embraced. Disappointingly, however, this is a musical that looks backwards on almost every score – but most especially with its score.
In fact, it turns out that the idea to adapt this 1938 Graham Greene novel as a musical has been kicking around for some 40 years in the head of composer John Barry, who was first given his blessing by the author to do so in the early 1960s. According to a programme note, it’s been Barry’s ambition to write it ever since.
Now that he has, he’s reunited with lyricist Don Black, 30 years on from when they collaborated on Billy, the stage version of another celebrated novel, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar. The Brighton Rock book is by Giles Havergal, whose stage adaptation of another Greene novel, Travels with My Aunt, was first seen at Glasgow Citizens’ in 1989 and subsequently won an Olivier when producer Bill Kenwright (who’s also behind the new project) brought it to the West End.
But the key to this Almeida staging seems to go back even further: Michael Attenborough, artistic director of the theatre and now directing a musical for the first time in his career, is the son of actor Richard who starred in the lead role of a stage version of the novel at the Garrick Theatre in 1942, and then even more famously in a subsequent 1947 film version. So its principal creators are all, to a greater or lesser extent, looking back to earlier successes in a series of sentimental attachments.
None of which would matter, of course, if the show they spawned were fresh and original in its own right. But instead of being a dark and gritty fable of underworld life in 1930s Brighton - where 17-year-old bookies’ protection racketeer Pinkie Brown is locked in a deadly turf war with Mr Colleoni, who had Pinkie’s mentor Kite’s throat slit - the result is by turns earnest, jaunty and sentimental.
That’s mainly thanks to a score that pours out a constant supply of unvarying, unmemorable ballads and bright, pastiche music hall numbers, all of which are showstoppers only in the worst possible sense: unusually, this is a musical that’s actually best between the songs. Given that it’s songs that drive a musical, the atmosphere of smoky menace carefully conjured by Havergal’s book scenes and Lez Brotherston’s wonderfully evocative and versatile set is constantly being sabotaged.
Ditto the efforts of an 18-strong cast – unusually large at this address – led by the marvellously malevolent Michael Jibson in the Richard Attenborough role of Pinkie. There’s also solid support from Sophia Ragavelas, as his innocent 16-year-old girlfriend whom he marries in order to silence, and Harriet Thorpe as a woman determined to bring him to justice.
Sadly, justice hasn’t been served to Greene’s story or to the hard-working company that are putting it across by this indulgent, dully scored musical.
- Mark Shenton