Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production shots by Karl Andre Photography
On reading the tag line for Pilot Theatre’s Brighton Rock on the Birmingham REP’s website I was a little apprehensive:
‘Romeo & Juliet meets Peaky Blinders in this gripping tale of crime and romance.’
Comparing Peaky Blinders with Brighton Rock misses the point somewhat; based on real gang violence that gripped Birmingham during the early 1900s, the BBC series takes real life events and dramatises them for an entertainment-hungry audience. As Greene stated, Brighton Rock started out as a “simple detective story”, but developed into a “discussion, too obvious and open for a novel, of the distinction between good and evil, and right and wrong and the mystery of the ‘appalling strangeness of the mercy of God’”.
For me, Greene’s Brighton Rock is a psychologically-complex and dark musing on the effects of upbringing, social change, violence-as-protection, and how far the belief in damnation can sustain a life of grotesque crime. So, prior to watching Bryony Lavery’s adaptation, I was concerned that the production would lack depth and eschew Greene’s problematic juxtaposition of the ethical and atheistic morality with Catholic dogma.
However, Lavery’s interpretation manages to untangle complex ideas that often bogged down Greene’s work. The themes, all concerning the root causes of evil, are delicately balanced to focus on psychological damage as a product of social conditioning and, most interestingly, the pre-conditioned religious understanding of good versus evil and heaven and hell. Pilot Theatre’s production of Brighton Rock is as multi-layered and complex as I had could have hoped for.
The opening scene brings together all the elements of the piece. We are introduced to Ida (Gloria Onitiri), who lives a hedonistic lifestyle in the pubs of Brighton, as she meets Fred (Marc Graham) who is being pursued by Pinkie’s (Jacob James Bestwick) gang.
The live, percussive, musical accompaniment conveys a sense of terror as the unfortunate Fred is stalked by Pinkie, a mood that is intensified by the jagged flashes of lighting and the choreographed ensemble. Graham slides across the stage in panicked frenzy, the choreography clicking to the rhythm of the drums which create the sound of a scared heartbeat. The live music is electrifying; the synth pulses throughout, suggestive of the frightening tight-rope line between good and evil that Pinkie and his gang are treading. This sets off the main events of the story, as Ida pursues justice for Fred and Pinkie desperately tries to remain in control.
Protruding from the back of the set is the battered and rusted remains of Brighton’s West Pier, which since the 1980s has fallen into disrepair, with most of the structure lost to the sea. The stage is innovatively used throughout, but most effectively during the chase for Fred. It acts as pier, seafront, guest house, the gang’s hideout, and the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Sara Perks has designed a fantastic homage to Brighton and its bawdy seaside past; the set works well as a metaphor for the decaying morals of Pinkie and his gang, as well as being evocatively suggestive of the future that ultimately befalls Pinkie.
Pinkie becomes embroiled in a relationship with Rose (Sarah Middleton), a naive waitress a year younger than him, initially in order to silence her when she witnesses evidence of the night of Fred’s murder. To maintain both her silence and love for him, Pinkie marries Rose in a sham wedding, bribing her parents with money to sign the consent form.
The evening of the wedding is a grotesque depiction of hatred; Rose asks Pinkie for a record of his voice and in a fit of madness he spits out a series of vitriolic statements. The consummation of their marriage shows Pinkie tussling with his emotions – anger, fear of sex, and loathing of the female body – while upholding his duty as gang leader and man. They both balance on a scaffold ladder that is twirled around by demons in black; their fight becomes a dance and they succumb to each other in a whirl of madness.
Pinkie might have a Peaky Blinders buzz cut, but he is far removed from the world of Brummie gangs and international gun running. Having installed himself at the top of his tiny seaside gang through viciousness and cunning, he is constantly struggling to assert his dominance yet haunted by the fragility of his position. He has something to prove, and his escalating attempts to control the fallout from a murder drive the story along.
Pinkie is preoccupied with his eternal damnation, which he avoids through reference to repentance before death; he behaves as if everything is permitted, and it is precisely his belief in damnation (and his disavowal of it) that allows him to do so. This all comes out in his performance, prowling around the stage and crackling with nervous energy. His exaggerated body language and twitchy head movements perfectly hints at his unpredictability and youth. Sara Perks’s costume for Pinkie is tailored and slim fitting, the jacket slightly too small in order to emphasises his sleight and teenage frame.
The cast are fantastic, each character is defined and clearly identifiable. Angela Bain is particularly good as Spicer, the older mob member whose poor memory and silly mistakes provoke Pinkie to have them killed. This moment at the racecourse is chilling and acts effectively as the beginning of Pinkie’s downward psychological spiral.
For me though, Onitiri’s performance as Ida is sublime and steals the limelight away from the brooding and erratic Pinkie. Throughout the play, Onitiri maintains the energy and exuberance that makes Ida so lovable and relatable.
Even during the second half, when the pace dropped considerably and the length of the piece started to bog down the energy of the cast, Onitiri managed to keep my attention fixed. Ida is the perfect foil for both Pinkie and Greene’s religious symbolism; her belief in right and wrong is driven by her admonishment of the Catholic Church’s prioritisation of the afterlife over human existence. Her singing is soulful, and during the last sequence after Pinkie has drowned in the sea, and Rose is left pregnant and forgotten, her final monologue about death is truly heart-breaking.
Bryony Lavery and Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of Brighton Rock is a well-balanced piece, perfectly acted and staged, and one I will go back to watch again and again. If this is Esther Richardson’s first major production for the York based theatre company, then I am excited to see what else she has up her sleeve.
Brighton Rock runs at the Birmingham REP until to Saturday 14th April. For direct show information, including venue details and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/brighton-rock
For more on Pilot Theatre, visit www.pilot-theatre.com
For more from the Birmingham REP, including further event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk