Brighton Rock is one of the great 20th century British novels first published in 1938, later adapted for film in 1947, and again in 2010. This stage adaptation by Bryony Lavery is a timely reassessment of the work set in 1930’s Brighton. A “Peaky Blinders” for the South Coast. Ostensibly, the story is a crime noir, a thriller, visceral, brutal and unforgiving. Lavery offers us a literal and metaphorical noir, with dark space between spotlights, edgy, and riddled with angst. Episodic and jarring. Underpinning it is Greene’s Catholic world view, something rarely given a 21st century outing, a religious prologue, and epilogue, bookending the production.
There is a moment in the second act when seventeen year old anti-hero Pinkie Brown (Jacob James Beswick) pauses from his path of psychotic mayhem, his eyes staring out into the distance distant beyond, but simultaneously looking inwards into his own soul. He leads life on the edge, each vicious encounter a dramatization of the real life Russian roulette which Greene used to dabble in. Brown is a thug on the up, a Brighton Face who has stepped into the shoes of his erstwhile boss. But a revenge-murder is witnessed by a young waitress, Rose, whom he decides to marry to avoid the possibility of adverse testimony. An unlikely, love hate, Romeo and Juliet plot evolves. He loves her, he hates her, he loves his life, he hates what it makes him do. Sarah Middleton’s, Rose is naïve, but sound, she understands she is being manipulated, but has no idea of what love is. She is a girl thrust into a bleak adult world. Brown, for all his brash bravado, is a boy struggling in a man’s world. If in doubt- lash out.
The entire play is a prolonged contemplation of the melancholy of Brown, a transcription and translation of his despair and the pain of his uncertainty. Moral failure is not only inevitable for Brown; it is also necessary for redemption. The world of sin finds its release in knife pulling, acid attacks, attempted murders, and turf wars. And it is here, amidst these sordid exploits, that Greene searches for Divine Grace. The play revels in social realism, good and evil, and the line between.
Brown is counterpointed by “tart with a heart” Ida, (Gloria Onitiri), who is the star of the show. Her understated beauty itself counterpointed by a mellifluous, doleful, versatile voice, her statuesque figure swathed in crimson and leopard print.Ida, looks out for Rose, her humanity an antidote for the brutality around her, a beacon of hope. Defiant, it is she who wants to uncover the true circumstances of the death of a man with whom she was fleetingly acquainted. Her face to face confrontations with Brown are highlights as her dominating presence dwarfs that of her rat like opponent. Her relationship with companion Jack, sensitively played by Chris Jack, is a tantalisingly explored sub-plot.
Artistic director, Pilot Theatre’s Esther Richardson, offers us a wonderful period vision. The stage is dominated by an iron walkway, looming above the stage. Sara Perks’ stage design enables it, spot lit to becomes a pier, a bedroom, a nightclub and bar. No brash seaside colours intrude, just an all -pervading sense of gloom. Hannah Peel’s insistent musical score is omnipresent, manifested live by two onstage musicians, driving the tragedy on.
Brighton Rock is a visual delight, the longer second half more satisfying than the first. I was uneasy about the dramatization of the climax, which convention dictates I cannot reveal. A bolder showdown was called for. Continues until 19th May, before finishing its nationwide tour in Manchester the following week.