Brighton Rock: Pilot Theatre shines again

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The one thing that sticks in my mind about Pilot Theatre more than anything is their striking sets. Directors and writers change, but the projections and running treadmill in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and the concrete flats in The Season Ticket have always stuck in my mind. So I was expecting something striking for Brighton Rock, but the choice, in retrospect, was the obvious one: Brighton Pier – or, more accurately the West Pier, back in the days when it was still a pier. The girder-themed West Pier is the better choice here, because, as Pilot Theatre plays always do, this set will be representing a lot of different locations around gang-ridden 1930s Brighton.

An early example of the set put to use is the chase. Fred, having fallen out of favour with his own gang, keeps moving, trying to stay where people are watching, and even attempts an impromptu courting of Ida. Alas, Ida is too slow to twig what’s really happening, and the minute she spends away from Fred to powder her nose is the minute his gang move in for the kill. With young Pinkie installing himself as the new leader, he then covers his tracks, but a careless mistake make by Spicer leaves a witness, a waitress called Rose. Pinkie opts to court her, and if necessary, marry her so she legally cannot testify against him.* By now, however, Pinkie is up against Ida, determined to make it up to Fred, and determined to protect innocent Rose. But does anyone know what Rose really wants?

* I don’t understand this either. But it’s the 1930s and apparently that law makes sense.

There is one thing about this adaptation I might have had an issue with. Whilst the relationship between the main characters was easy to follow, it’s harder to follow the wider setting, especially with the semi-naturalistic semi-representational setting used for this play. I got that there are different gangs at war, and the Police are happy to turn a blind eye as long as they murder each other quietly and don’t bother the tourists. However, there are some plot points on the inter-gang politics that got a bit confusing. I appreciate it’s a complicated setup that’s not easy to communicate clearly in a play script, but when Pinkie sets up lightweight Spicer to be bumped off by a rival gang, which is then is (apparently), only for Spicer to turn up at Pinkie’s hideout alive and well necessitating another murdering, I got completely lost.

But here’s the strange thing: it matters a lot less than you’d expect. The focus of this adaptation isn’t which gang’s got one over the other, but the characters of Pinkie, Rose, Ida, and everyone around them. Everything about them that matters comes through in the story. Ida’s fight for justice against the apathetic Police is one strong theme, so is the Catholic faiths of Rose and Pinkie. Although Rose and Pinkie utilise their beliefs in different ways: traditionalist Rose having strong ideas of right and wrong, Pinkie taking the more flexible approach that you can get away with everything as long as you tell God you’re sorry just before you snuff it.

Key to the performance is Jacob James Beswick as Pinkie. As anyone familiar with Graham Greene’s novel knows, Pinkie is no ordinary mobster in for a quick buck – he is a complete psychopath, giving him the ruthlessness he needs to take over his gang. And yet it also proves to be his undoing, not because of the hatred he earns from his enemies, but the love he doesn’t know how to handle. Beswick captures it perfectly from the first killing he cold-heartedly prepared, to the final showdown he couldn’t prepare for.

The unexpected star of the production, however, is Hannah Peel and her music. The production is excellently choreographed as it is, but the live music gives it an extra edge with the atmosphere creates. It is not never obtrusive, and always plays second fiddle to the dialogue and action on stage, but it supports the mood of each scene perfectly, throughout the play.

Pilot Theatre’s adaptation is on of the best all-round productions to have come to the north-east. Writer Bryony Lavery and director Esther Richardson did a great job between them creating this vision, but they were very fortune to be surrounded by such a good creative team to bring this into reality. This tour has now finished, but if they want to do a second one, surely they can make a success out of it. It helps if you know the story in advance of seeing the play, but apart from that, I have nothing to fault with it. It gets right everything of the story that matter, bring in Pilot Theatre’s own unique take, and for the third time in a row Pilot Theatre has impressed the north-east with what it can do.

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