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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Shaftesbury


  Ph: Johan Persson

The British press reception for this new musical adaptation of James Jones’ quintessentially American 1951 best-seller has been highly – and, to my mind, understandably – mixed, with star ratings ranging from two to five and blurbs like "gritty and sexy" balanced against one scribe’s suggestion that it could become a camp classic. It’s a problematic show, at times clunky and sprinkled with a few rather priceless howlers. Also, its occasionally uncertain tone doesn’t always sit well within the genre’s more formulaic demands. Still, I found it to be an ambitious and absorbing entertainment and, at times, admirably ambiguous in a manner that would seem true to the source material.
Set in Hawaii in 1941, and with a book by Bill Oakes, the show is about the mentality of the American Army, especially as it influences the star-crossed relationships of two couples. Even if certain details in the expression of those relationships don’t always convince, Tamara Harvey’s often persuasive production manages to capture a sense of what this baby boomer imagines the mores of the time to have been like.
Film buffs will surely remember Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-garlanded 1953 film of Jones’ novel, which featured Frank Sinatra in a career-defining dramatic role as the tragic Private Angelo Maggio. The movie’s most iconic sequence is a passionately wet, horizontal clinch between illicit lovers Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on a nocturnal beach. On the boards that scene is converted at the end of act one into an enjoyably ridiculously centre-stage flash of buttocks (female) backed by an orgasmic surge of digital surf.
The exposed derriere belongs to Rebecca Thornhill’s Karen Holmes, the sexually damaged wife of a U.S. Army captain. At this particular moment she’s locked in the arms of her lover, blunt and square-jawed First Sergeant Milt Warden, who also happens to be her hubby’s right-hand man. Warden is played by tall, dark and handsome Darius Campbell, best known in the U.K. as a finalist in the TV talent show Pop Idol (and later cast as Rhett Butler in Trevor Nunn’s short-lived 2008 musical production of Gone With the Wind). The Holmes/Warden liaison is juxtaposed with that of Robert Lonsdale’s Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift onscreen), a musically inclined Kentucky-born loner with a troubled past, and Siubhan Harrison’s fairly classy prostitute Lorene (played in ’53 by Oscar winner Donna Reed).
Both affairs foreground a scenario that climaxes with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, here recreated using projections and some very effective slow-motion shock tableaux most likely attributable to choreographer Javier de Frutos. The show’s key supporting through-line is Maggio, embodied by the charismatic Ryan Sampson as a cocky bantamweight who – in a return to the content of the novel deemed unsuitable for 1950s Hollywood – occasionally visits homosexual bars in search of cash for services rendered. (I can’t quite envision Sinatra’s Maggio doing the same.) This feisty, likeable little hustler is also a sacrificial victim of the military machine, his status and stance put across with blistering irony in the song "I Love the Army."
There are other high spots in composer Stuart Brayson and lyricist Tim Rice’s rather fine score, with music reflecting a range of influences from big band swing and folk rock to plain old showbiz pizzazz. The opening group anthem "G Company Blues’" is as strong as Lorene’s later ballad "Run Along Joe" is moving, and both songs are rightly reprised. As is "You Got the Money," a knowingly sexed-up production number set in the brothel where Lorene works and subsequently turned into a brief drag queen’s solo.
Some of the script’s issues, like the gay angle, are glossed over. And there are awkward moments – bits of dialogue, say, that sound stilted or couched in quotation marks. But the acting is uniformly dedicated, including from the large ensemble, and the lead vocals (e.g. a duet for Prewitt and Warden that contrasts Lonsdale’s attractive, slightly nasal hillbilly tenor with the smooth grit of Campbell’s eerily Nat King Cole-ish timbre) are just fine. Atmospherically lit by Bruno Poet, Soutra Gilmour’s design places the action inside a crumbling proscenium frame with a rough back wall that occasionally – and with a subtle magic – suggests lush tropical mountains. The setting indicates that we’re in the theatre of war. It’s a location where few things come easily, whether that means the resolution of plot points and the emotional arc of Jones’ conflicted and complicated characters or – in terms of responses to From Here To Eternity – a critical thumbs-up or down. I know which direction I’d go.


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