Pilot Theatre Company’s ensemble cast bring a fresh energy to this new adaptation of Graham Greene’s classic story of underworld violence and betrayal in 1930’s working class Brighton. The novel was promoted as an underworld thriller, but it also explores the origins of morality, the influence of the catholic faith, love, and death. It puts a spotlight on the danger of a culture of casual violence, perpetrated by rootless youth, which can spiral out of control with tragic consequences. The title refers to the traditional stick of seaside rock, which in the novel is used as a metaphor for the weapon used to kill Hale (Fred) Death by confectionary – such sweet irony! The fact that seaside rock has the same name running right through the middle wherever you cut it, is also used to symbolise the idea that people can’t change – they are what they are. The battle of nature versus nurture is ever present.
The glitter of the pier lights and all the fun of the seaside mask a dark network of protection rackets power and revenge killings. Pinkie Brown, 17, is a small-town hoodlum whose gang runs a protection racket based at Brighton race course. When Pinkie murders a journalist called Fred Hale whom he believes is responsible for the death of a fellow gang-member, the police believe it to be suicide. This doesn’t convince feisty good time girl, Ida Arnold, who was with Fred just before he died, and she sets out to find the truth. She comes across naive waitress Rose, who can prove that Fred was murdered. In an attempt to keep Rose quiet (a wife can’t give evidence against her husband) Pinkie marries her. But with his gang beginning to doubt his ability, and his rivals taking over his business, Pinkie starts to become increasingly desperate and violent. The production has a lot of short cinematic scenes and minimalist set with the framework of the lights of the pier giving the context to the action. The ensemble cast fill up the space creating a dark energy around the tragic central characters, when events begin to spiral out of control.
Although I’d read the book and seen the film I couldn’t really remember much about Ida, but Gloria Onitri makes a convincing amateur sleuth, with a non religious morality rooted in her absolute certainty that she understands ‘right from wrong’. She is a strong woman ‘salt of the earth’ who is a ‘Buer’ – a bit of a good time girl. She doesn’t take no for an answer and nor does she take any nonsense from the men in her life. As the last person to see Fred alive, she feels a duty to pursue justice for him, and by using his tip to bet on Red King at the races, she is able to win the money to allow her to pursue this end. She is the only character that brings any lightness into this murky world in her bright red coat.
Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie has a perfect angular vulpine undernourished look, which suits the character very well. His tight skinny suit and his menacing jittery physicality are spot on. Pinkie has never really known any love or affection and when faced with the full force it from Rose, he finds it alien and unwelcome. Love is weakness, and the fact that he has to mimic it in order to get Rose to marry him, is disgusting to him. His true feelings towards her are recorded on the voice-o-matic at the pier which, in a cruel twist, Rose only gets to hear after his death. Pinkie is the ultimate in emotional unavailability.
Sarah Middleton as Rose is also extremely good. She has the right sort of trusting naivety which can actually be quite powerful in its unquestioning certainty. She know what she knows, and she loves who she loves, regardless. Things are simple for Rose, but they are about to get a lot more complicated..
The other characters are really satellites to this central anti Romeo and Juliet story, and one by one the murders play out, each one covering up the slip ups of the last one. The police ‘Bogeys,’are not really in evidence here, and seem to have little impact on this dark society and its criminal etiquette. I loved the use of the slang of the time – ‘milky’ for afraid, ‘Roman’ is a catholic, ‘Vitriol’ is sulphuric acid which was used a weapon, ‘Polony’ is a girl. No doubt it influenced Anthony Burgess in his creation of Nadsat in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ I’ll bet a pony he read Brighton Rock.
It is a sad observation that the violence of gang culture, disenfranchised youth and even the using of acid as a weapon, are still topics so relevant today. Pinkie is surfing the darkness and finally becomes engulfed by it, and that darkness remains fundamental to the human condition. There are some very talented actors here, and this is still a powerful story which resonates – I really enjoyed this high quality stage version and I’m sure you would too.
Brighton Rock is on at Northern Stage in Newcastle until the 5th May and then continues its tour.