Nobody carves up a stage like Steven Berkoff: his version of Elia Kazan’s iconic 1954 movie, using the script Budd Schulberg adapted from his own screenplay, is a fluid, non-stop, slow-motion sculpture show, bathed in pools of light and purple silhouette, danced and conjured by a cast of twelve in homburgs and dark suits in tight groups, diagonal lines and prancing processions round a square, tilted acting area.
It amounts to a truly creative evocation of the movie without catching its heartbeat, the love story between the Marlon Brando character, Terry Malloy, the twenty-something former boxer who could have been a contender, and the blonde demure sister, Edie Doyle, of the longshoreman who is pushed off the roof in the opening reel.
Simon Merrells as Terry and Bryony Afferson as Edie (replacing Coral Beed, who played the role in Edinburgh and Nottingham) make a rather drab couple, he in his mid-thirties (Brando’s Terry was “pushing thirty”), she lacking the pure inner glow of Eve Marie Saint. Sometimes comparisons between film and play are gratuitous; here, they are unavoidable, as On the Waterfront is part of everyone’s cultural baggage.
Berkoff himself, heaving his bulk around in a great sigh of bitterness and displeasure, is a fairly amicable Johnny Friendly, the mob ruler, compared to the volcanic nastiness of Lee J Cobb, while Antony Byrne as Terry’s brother Charley shares the camel coat with Rod Steiger but doesn’t register anything like Steiger’s presence or fraternal anxiety in the back of the cab.
That famous sequence is staged in a pool of light, one of several great set-pieces that flow into each other with a seamless efficiency in the projected shadow of the great head of the Statue of Liberty, hand aloft holding a docker’s hook. Joey’s funeral is bathed in a protracted chorus of “Danny Boy” while Mark Glentworth’s smoky soundtrack includes nicely appropriate, jazzed-up versions of Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”
The pigeons on the roof are amusingly done by the cast pecking and cooing on the backs of their bentwood chairs, the scene eliding with a Brooklyn boogie where the subpoena is served on Terry before his resolve is stiffened by the second killing and Father Barry’s rousing speech about the crucifixion; Vincenzo Nicoli delivers this with a fine old fury, if not the granite conviction of Karl Malden in the movie.