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Review Round-up: Waterfront a Critical Contender

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The inimitable Steven Berkoff brought his latest show to the West End last week (12 February, previews from 28 January) – an expressionistic re-imagining of seminal 1954 film On the Waterfront.

In On the Waterfront, New Jersey ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman Terry Malloy (immortalised on screen by Marlon Brando) comes up against his corrupt, Mob-ruled union bosses. After being implicated in a murder, Terry finds support in the form of a streetwise priest and the love of the dead man’s sister.

The new stage play of On the Waterfront is conceived and directed by Berkoff and co-written by the original screenplay’s author Budd Schulberg (who attended the opening night - See 1st Night Photos) with Stan Silverman. Berkoff himself stars as mobster Johnny Friendly, alongside Simon Merrells as Terry "coulda been a contender" Malloy and Bryony Afferson as love-interest Edie Doyle.

Most critics predictably drew comparisons with Arthur Miller's longshoreman drama A View From the Bridge, which by coincidence also opened in the capital recently (See Review Round-up, 9 Feb 2009). And most clearly enjoyed their return trip to the New York docks, with Berkoff's “creative evocation” of the movie matched by the “knockout performances” of his cast. Simon Merrells was roundly applauded for avoiding a Brando imitation in an “aggressive, vulnerable, touchingly inarticulate” turn as Malloy, while Bryony Afferson's "intense" Doyle and Berkoff's “splendidly sinister” Johnny Friendly also won praise.The Waterfront is clearly the place to be in the West End these days...

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “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 … Simon Merrells as Terry and Bryony Afferson as Edie … make a rather drab couple … 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.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Berkoff's production boasts a choric ensemble with the most lined, creased and characterful faces on the London stage … I enjoyed On the Waterfront more than A View from the Bridge. This is largely due to the sheer style and panache of Berkoff's production, with its thrilling use of ensemble movement, dramatic lighting, and a brilliant score that ranges from jazz, jive and rock'n'roll to frenzied percussion. There are knockout performances. The biggest compliment I can pay Simon Merrells is that you forget about Brando when you are watching his aggressive, vulnerable, touchingly inarticulate performance as Terry Malloy. Berkoff provides a splendidly sinister star-turn as the shaven-headed, pot-bellied union boss and there's outstanding support right through the ranks. Make no mistake. This show has class and will be a contender for awards.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Terry Malloy, the ex-boxer who has unwittingly cooperated in one of Friendly’s killings, is a sort of Hercules who gradually awakens from his moral slumber to confront evil head on. This was, of course, the role that made Marlon Brando’s name, which means that the actor playing the character is not only tackling a myth but competing with a legend. All credit, then, to Simon Merrells, who catches the initial swagger and laid-back cynicism, yet manages not just to suggest an inarticulate vulnerability but to show it in body movements … But it’s very much Berkoff’s evening. Aside from anything else, his Friendly is a paunchy monster who exudes menace whether he’s lolling, smiling or ferociously spilling out rage at his foes.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (five stars) - “It takes a rare, rash courage to put one of the great movies of all time on stage … Director Steven Berkoff has managed the feat in an extraordinary piece of expressionistic theatre and stylised ritual that ranks as a thrilling work of art … The key to Berkoff’s triumph is his decision to reject any attempts at realism. Instead he opts for his familiar brand of expressionism … Berkoff as director works to spell-binding effect in this version of On the Waterfront … The excitement of the plot … depends upon the implicating of Terry and his brother in the death of Joey Doyle. Doyle’s sister, Edie, played with terrific intensity by Bryony Afferson, once she falls for Joey, and Vincenzo Nicoli’s mobster-defying priest, incite Malloy to put conscience first when facing up to the chief mobster, Johnny Friendly. Berkoff invests this villain with terrifying unpredictability as he switches from smiling affability to snarling fury in a trice. I was enthralled.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “First comes A View From The Bridge. Now, by a strange chance, we get this stage version of the famous 1954 Budd Schulberg-Elia Kazan movie … it makes for a gripping piece of theatre. This is largely because it is directed by Steven Berkoff, who eschews cinematic realism to provide a piece of dockside expressionism … Stylised movement creates the visual context, complemented by a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty clutching a docker's hook (or could it be the Communist sickle?) … Individual performers shine out of the ensemble: Simon Merrells' impressive Terry is no Brando imitation but a moody, mixed-up moralist who is still enough of a pugilist to keep punching the air with his right fist … As a bonus, Berkoff himself has taken over the role of the murderous union boss since the show's Nottingham premiere … It is a dazzling performance in a group show that offers not a carbon copy but an imaginative re-invention of what is an iconic movie.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Katie Blemler

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