Brighton Rock: Female Stars Shine through a Masculine Mob
In a new adaptation by Bryony Lavery, who’s on a mission “to create iconic roles for women […] because the world is full of fantastic female actors”, Brighton Rock enacts the classic Graham Greene novel and aptly fits Week 53’s ‘coming of age’ theme.
The show leaps into action under the distinctive industrial structure of the pier. Announcing ‘they’re going to murder me’ from the outset, there is no denying that the show will be action-packed. This Pilot Theatre production ebbs and flows through the plot with tireless dedication to achieving a pace fitting of a killing spree.
Gloria Onitiri, as the indomitable Ida Arnold, opens the show and carries much of the energy throughout. She is a woman on a mission and “nothing scares her”. Played with infectious warmth and laughter, Onitiri’s portrayal injects colour and pantomime into the gritty underworld of Graham Greene’s Brighton.
In stark contrast, Pinkie, played by Jacob James Beswick, terrorises Brighton and perfectly exudes teenage angst and egomania. Beswick’s performance grows as the play goes on, eventually breaking out from a single monotonously surly level.
Pinkie’s love-interest-cum-burden, Rose, is played charmingly by Sarah Middleton who exudes hopeful naivety. As Pinkie's exact opposite, there is room for some comic moments between the fatal pairing, but these are not the focus of this production. Rather, sombre lighting and the ominous presence of mute mobster chorus members define this angsty play.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with novel adaptations, the dialogue occasionally labours plot points a touch too heavily. Even beyond the dialogue, the script spells out emotions and realisations that are clear without the need for soliloquising. In a particularly blatant example, where the atmosphere of the Brighton racetrack is well-achieved through collaborative mime, for me, the choric repetition of ‘we’re going to the races’ feels a little patronising.
Where the performance reaches beyond the textual elements, it really comes alive. Composer Hannah Peel’s onstage musicians bring a pounding and modern twist to the piece, tying the action together seamlessly and delivering atmosphere where sometimes the dialogue lacks it. A great number of short, dialogic interactions are punctuated with some lovely, balletic movement sequences: the ultimate ‘coming of age’ moment, as two Catholic teenagers lose their virginity, is presented tastefully and poetically atop a spinning staircase. As the plot necessitates several instances of death and drowning, movement director Jennifer Jackson draws the characters out of their slightly flat gangster roles and bursts through the caricatured naturalism. The production centres on such injections of movement and creative staging, employing the dramatic set (designed by Sara Perks) to create visual levels, overlapping scenes and the monkey bars of a dangerous playground. Outside of these moments, there are simply too many instances of walking aimlessly to a point and spinning around into a new scene for my taste.
Amidst the fast pace of successive scenes, Brighton Rock contains some great smaller parts: Marc Graham and Shamira Turner take turns as drunken secret-spillers and it’s a nice touch to have Jennifer Jackson step out from her ensemble dancer role to play the overtly sassy gangster, Mrs Colleoni.
Jumping between locations in quick sequence and introducing a relatively large number of character roles, Brighton Rock doesn’t immediately lend itself to the stage and, at times, this production struggles to break through the monotonous mumbling of the mob scene. Yet Esther Richardson’s play has a lot to offer, as it layers live music, contemporary dance and distinct characterisation over a striking set, ultimately to spotlight redemption amidst flagrant amorality.