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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket


  Simon Merrels and Antony Byrne/PH: Nobby Clark

What happens to a theatrical renegade - or ought one to say, radical - in later years? If you're Steven Berkoff , you trot out old tricks to new audiences, or time-honored converts to the Berkoffian total theater cause. His West End stage production of On the Waterfront may strike intermittent sparks, more often than not when the excellent Simon Merrells is center stage, very ably filling Marlon Brando's legendary screen shoes as Terry Malloy. But the real subject of this play isn't its depiction of life among the compromised ethics of the stevedores in 1950s America - a kind of companion piece, if you will, to the superb new revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge , which inhabits a comparable time and place. No, what matters here is an actor/writer/director in Berkoff, who even in his 70s thinks of the blank stage as a place on which to work his geometric finesse, moving his (mostly male) cast around in deliberate patterns accentuated by shadowy, sculptural shafts of light, the deliberately bare set a platform for stagecraft as interested in movement and sound as it is in text: you've rarely seen a stern-faced group of guys have such a good time
&nbspdiscovering their inner pigeon, a feat that owes more to the exigencies of drama school or sketch acting than to illuminating screenwriter and now playwright Budd Schulberg's enquiry into a bygone (one assumes) mob rule. (Now in his 90s. Schulberg wrote the play version with the late Stan Silverman -this version, incidentally, has nothing to do with the short-lived Broadway account of the film during the 1990s, which itself earned fine notices for leading man Ron Eldard.)

Therein lies the rub with a production whose own empathy for its source is never in doubt, the Haymarket run following stands in Nottingham and Edinburgh that have now led to Berkoff himself joining the cast. The actor takes the supporting role of the ironically named Johnny Friendly, the mob supremo who furthers a distinct tradition of Berkoff baddies, many of them best remembered on screen. Eyes gleaming, the director cuts a charismatically squat, take-no-prisoners presence that bristles with unpredictability: "I go with everything I got," Friendly says, and, boy, do you believe him. If only that quality carried over to a production that after not very long seems to be going through its predetermined paces: you want slow motion? You got it, as you did several decades ago in Berkoff's National Theatre Salome, while the suited authority of his grim-faced men recalls the strict regimen of this director's New York Coriolanus, which remains for me one of the most exciting stagings of Berkoff's influential career.

The problem, classically, is one of style over substance: you're so aware of the master puppeteer positioning his cast into place that the programmatic feel rarely lets up. This extends, perhaps inevitably, to some decidedly heavy-going American accents and the tendency, hardly unique to this play, for British performers to so thoroughly give it their States-side all that they seem to attack the language as opposed to merely speaking it: Vincenzo Nicoli's Father Barry leads that particular charge. The musical accompaniment ranges from Danny Boy to Be Bop A Lula, the latter undoubtedly made to order for Waterfront's English producer, Bill Kenwright , who remains more besotted with the American pop music canon that most Americans.

You no doubt remember the story of the 1954 film, with its shifting loyalties and snarling mano-a-mano encounters and complete with defining lines like "I coulda been a contender." East End actor Merrells, making his West End debut, to his credit not only looks like the onetime boxer that Terry was but puts one in mind of Bra


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