The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th April, 2018
This new production from Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal rocks into town with an irresistible swagger. Composer Hannah Peel’s score is designed to quicken the heartbeat, the drum-heavy arrangements tribal and exciting like jungle drums. Our jungle is the criminal underworld of 1950s Brighton, where rival gangs of protectionists rule the streets.
Leading one such gang is Pinkie – a perky performance by Jacob James Beswick. His Pinkie is cocksure, tough and volatile, who sees his youth (aged 17) as no handicap. In fact, his lack of years is a plus: he can’t be hanged for his crimes. He also has a cavalier attitude to eternal damnation – planning to play the Catholic get-out-of-Hell-free card by repenting in the last minute of his life. Superstition is a recurring theme, be it church-going or dabbling with a Ouija board.
Sarah Middleton is the perfect contrast to Pinkie in every way as Rose, the girl whose affections Pinkie waylays in order to stop her from going to the cops with what she knows. Rose is blinded, not by the vitriol Pinkie waves in her face, but by his attentions, proving herself fiercely loyal albeit misguided. A tight ensemble plays the supporting roles, notable among them is the versatile Angela Bain, as Spicer, a priest, and others. Jennifer Jackson, appearing as the ultra-cool rival boss Colleoni, is responsible for the stylised movements – the violence is savagely choreographed – and Jackson performs a sinuous bit of expressive jazz dancing to accompany the turmoil of the lead characters.
Dominating the action is Ida, seeking justice for a murdered beau. Gloria Onitiri is thoroughly magnificent. Funny, determined, passionate and with a dirty laugh, she also treats us to her rich singing voice in a couple of cool torch songs.
The show is ineffably cool in the way that bad boys are cool. But we are definitely on Ida’s side, as the moral compass of the story.
Director Esther Richardson keeps things slick and sharp as a razor, employing the ensemble as stagehands to keep the action continuous and the transitions seamless. Bryony Lavery’s splendid adaptation of the Graham Greene novel delivers the feel of the era, the argot of the underworld, while Sara Perks’s all-purpose set evokes Brighton Pier chief among the other locations. There is a Kneehigh feel to proceedings with the stylisation, the onstage musicians and so on – and there’s nothing wrong in that. Quite the contrary!
Gripping, entertaining and inventively presented, this is one stick of rock that has QUALITY running all the way through it.