Review: Brighton Rock (York Theatre Royal)

Bryony Lavery adapts Graham Greene’s novel about Brighton gangsters

Staging a classic work of literature and film is no easy task, but Esther Richardson, in her first major production for Pilot, and playwright Bryony Lavery have not been phased, joining forces on an ambitious new reworking of Graham Greene’s famous meditation on gangsters, Catholicism, justice, revenge and the meaning of right and wrong.

Designer Sara Perks’ pliant multi platform set accommodates several locations and her broken, drab cage-of-a-pier is the centrepiece for the action. The evocative underground mobster world of southern England is all menace and eerie hue as 17 year-old Pinkie embarks on a revenge mission to kill Fred Hale, the man responsible for the demise of his previous gang leader. The visual tone is dark and neutral, except in the case of Ida, played by Gloria Onitiri, striking in red dress and lavish coat.

She is the redemptive force in this lurid story, standing for justice and atheism, unlike, ironically, her adversary gangster and Catholic Pinkie, who unleashes carnage and destruction upon all before him, whilst somehow feeling confident in his future after death because he can repent.

We then watch Pinkie come undone as he struggles to cover his tracks, manipulating everyone along the way, most notably his functional beau, Rose. It’s difficult to think of a more loathsome character and he doesn’t ever relent tonally, but Jacob James Beswick does a sterling job representing his increasing juvenile itchiness, showing us so much through the movements of his body. This actor makes one subtle hand gesture do so much work for the character. Sarah Middleton astutely brings out the timidity, utter devotion and the knowing all at once in Rose and the cast of nine nimbly negotiate doubling and multitasking throughout.

The creative team have admirably inveigled the work with a crepuscular, menacing visual and musical perspective and there’s some thrilling and imaginative choreography. Structurally Lavery delivers short, snappy scenes early on and the design, backstage and creatives deserve great credit for serving the text with swift and economical scene changes. Done badly they can be ruinous but here the execution is nailed perfectly, and to such satisfying storytelling effect.

Hannah Peel’s percussive, eerie soundscape always builds tension enough and her songs give Onitiri one or two arresting interludes. She has a fine voice and these are effective in both offsetting and enhancing the darkness. Movement director Jennifer Jackson initiates some striking work as actors moved from scene to scene. One intoxicating, ingenious passage depicts Rose and Pinkie’s wedding night consummation through movement and sound only.

The piece stalls a little part way through the first act when the momentum gets lost in phases of prolonged exposition, but then with such a complex plot there probably needed to be, and this may have been a challenge with bringing Brighton Rock to the stage. The descriptive possibilities of a novel and visual variances of film certainly render them favourable mediums to tell this story.

Hats off then to the Pilot team to have produced this snappy, different-yet-faithful and evocative interpretation of a classic work.

Brighton Rock runs at York Theatre Royal until 3 March and then tours the UK.