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Brighton Rock on stage

See Brighton Rock in the city itself with this excellent production with strong cast, clever set and more than a hint of menace.

The most famous novel about Brighton has been turned into a fantastic stage play and this week it is on at the Theatre Royal in the very city where it is set, just streets from some of the locations featured.

Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock was published in 1938 but you’ll probably, like me, know it best from the black and white 1948 film starring Richard Attenborough as baby-faced killer Pinkie.

Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie and Sarah Middleton at Rose

The stage play, written by Bryony Lavery and directed by Esther Richardson does not suffer by such illustrious comparison, in fact it draws new dimensions from the book and that sense of menace is still very much apparent.

We’re taken back to Brighton between the wars when the resort had a seedy underbelly of gang violence and protection rackets. Following the murder of his gang leader, 17-year-old Pinkie steps up, instigating further bloodshed. Visiting journalist Fred Hale is killed, prompting an unofficial investigation from sassy fellow day-tripper Ida. Pinkie meanwhile must get close to a naive waitress who he believes has evidence that could hang him.

I do love a clever set and the one for Brighton Rock is impressive. A platform arrangement with action taking place on top and underneath morphs from pier to Pinkie’s digs (with the infamous ‘loose banister’) to hotels rooms and bars multiple times. Cafe tables are spun into place, the staircase removed and reattached, a set of lamps pulled low to create a bookie or a chandelier to denote a hotel. There are also elements of physical theatre from the ensemble cast including a very inventive stylised sex scene on slowly revolting steps.

Clever lighting and dry ice are used to help create a noir feel in places. The sound is also very effective in abruptly switching the atmosphere, so within seconds you’re whisked from a genteel tea room with clinking china to the seafront with gulls and crashing waves, or racecourse with thundering hooves and announcements. Musicians within the set also ramp up the tension, particularly with the use of drumbeats.

The ensemble cast is excellent. From the very opening, Gloria Ontiri as Ida particularly stood out for me. Confident, brave and dogged in her pursuit of the truth yet full of humour and love of life against the backdrop of evil. Ontiri gives her great poise and energy so I always felt she had the upper hand even when she was in danger. Her costume – often a bright dress or red coat also seemed well chosen to symbolise her vibrancy against the dark world operating around her.

Gloria Ontiri as Ida

Director Esther Richardson said she wanted to emphasise how much Pinkie and Rose’s actions are dictated by their youth and I felt this was well achieved. Jacob James Beswick with his slight, wiry frame and jerky, posturing movements was convincily a teenager acting up – both dangerous, yet also out of his depth, something I’d never thought about as much in the film versions.

Sarah Middleton plays a suitably wide-eyed Rose both naive yet somehow understanding a hint of what she’s getting into and enjoying the drama.

The sense of fear and panic of Fred Hale played by Marc Graham (who later appears as a gang member) as he desperately tries to attach himself to women to avoid Pinkie and co. was also painfully real.

Marc Graham as Fred and Gloria Ontiri as Ida

Among the wider cast, women play some male parts – gang member Spicer for instance is carried off well by a husky-voiced Angela Bain.

The play being set in the very place we were watching certainly added to the scare factor, but it also roused a few notes of comedy. Anyone from teens up will enjoy this excellent production, you just might not fancy walking home in the dark afterwards.

Brighton Rock is at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Saturday night. Tickets are from £14.90


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