THE multi-level set for Pilot Theatre’s Brighton Rock at the Birmingham Rep, designed by Sarah Perks, stands menacingly on a black latex covered wet floor and is a dark and mysterious actor in itself.
It literally pulsates as the musicians, ensconced deep within it, provide under the direction of composer Hannah Peel, a soundtrack of relentless menace.
And it breathes like a dark heart feeding an intricate array of veins and vessels, which constantly move and thus evolve from the iron columns of Brighton Pier to the towns’ hotels, pubs and clubs. It is a veritable spider web of compartments in which to hide then spew forth the actor/protagonists into the non-stop action.
The plot itself concerns mobsters and murder. In reality little has changed in the 80 years since Green wrote about the evil teenage thugs who intimidated the vulnerable by wielding razor blades and using bottles of vitriol acid to scar pretty faces. Like today’s turf gangs their peers glorified them – now of course it is knives, drain cleaner and gangster rap.
In Brighton’s gangland, 17-year-old baby-faced, grapefruit juice drinking, would-be boss Pinkie – played by a lithe, disturbing Jacob James Beswick.
There is little about him to like. He is after all a sociopathic homosexual bubbling with a desire to do bad things, yet there is something of a haunted Romeo about him as he sets out to marry barely 16-year-old Rose, a delightful innocent faced Sarah Middleton. This is ostensibly so she cannot testify in court against him as a witness to a murder he committed to climb the criminal pecking order. However when Pinkie discovers Rose shares his taste for danger and is not averse to a spot of sadomasochism he struggles to stop falling in love. Rose is of course drawn like a moth to a Bonnie and Clyde candle.
Watching and determined to rescue Rose from falling into the criminal abyss is Ida, the other main character and would-be detective. An excellent performance by Gloria Ontiri, the star of the evening, as she draws a ‘desperate for something wholesome to latch onto’ audience to her side. Ida confronts gangland’s nastiest resplendent in a red dress and leopard skin coat, as opposed to the 50 shades of black worn by the rest of the company.
The play builds to a grand operatic style climax on the pier where Pinkie’s enemies are closing in on him in a death hunt. He insists Rose joins him in a star-crossed lovers suicide pact. Rose refuses to shoot herself deciding she would rather live, Pinkie jumps into in the black waters to drown.
The stylised, choreographed movement of a faultless ensemble perfectly fits the pace and piece – cleverly fusing many disciplines of drama into a patchwork containing everything from a nod at speakeasy crooning to contemporary dance.
This is also its drawback as it also encourages us to keep our distance – we remain appreciative, sometimes captivated but never fully immersed.
The show is on until Saturday, April 14. Visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk for more information or tickets.
Review by Euan Rose.