FROM HERE TO ETERNITY at the Charing Cross Theatre
“This is a finely tuned production that rides on its high values and first-rate performances from all involved”
The image that forms in most people’s mind when hearing the title “From Here to Eternity” is of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s adulterous, steamy embrace on the shores of the Hawaiian island of Oahu while the waves metaphorically release their foam around the lovers’ entangled limbs. The marketing of Fred Zinnemann’s WWII romance ensured a rave reception, but it strayed somewhat from James Jones’ original fifties novel, on which Tim Rice, Stuart Brayson, Donald Rice and Bill Oakes have more faithfully based their musical.
The film was censored somewhat, resulting in the themes of prostitution, homosexuality and abuse being either underplayed or written out completely. Rice and Oakes’ script thankfully reinstates them, although sometimes it feels like a passing gesture that is reaching out for further exploration. A straight drama would have the space to do this, but the harshness of the story lines is softened by this musical treatment. That’s not necessarily a drawback: Brayson’s exhilarating score, orchestrated by Musical Director Nick Barstow, packs a punch with its mix of military chants, dusky blues and power ballads, occasionally tinged with a Hawaiian twang. It is softer in Act One, but the kid gloves come off after interval and only then does the passion of the piece hit us. If the emotion comes through loud and clear through the singing, however, it falls a little flat during the dialogue.
Brett Smock’s fresh and dynamic staging begins at the end, before rewinding two weeks to lead us day by day to the horrific air strike on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The days are counted down, like the pages of a calendar torn off by a captive serving time in a prison camp. As we approach the fatal morning when so many lives were needlessly lost, the complex and contradictory emotions of the American soldiers are expressed. “I Love the Army… I Hate the Army” is a leitmotif that more than one character extols.
Private Robert Lee Prewitt (Jonathon Bentley) reports to his new posting at G Company. His commanding officer Captain Holmes (brilliantly played by Alan Turkington) is relying on Prewitt to win the boxing championship, thereby increasing his own chances of promotion. Prewitt however refuses to fight having made a deathbed wish to give up boxing after accidentally blinding a fellow soldier. Holmes’ vengeful bullying extends to his dissatisfied wife, Karen (a cool and calculating Carley Stenson) who seeks solace by embarking on an affair with First Sergeant Milt Warden (Adam Rhys-Charles). Into the fold falls Private Angelo Maggio (Jonny Amies), a hot-headed New York Italian who moonlights as a paid companion to the local male community. Meanwhile Prewitt falls for the beautiful prostitute Lorene (Desmonda Cathabel) and dreams in vain of making a respectable woman of her. A highlight of the production is Eve Polycarpou’s Mrs Kipfer, the brothel’s hard-nosed ‘Madam’. Polycarpou certainly establishes her presence from the moment she steps onstage singing the showstopping “I Know What You Came For”.
Unencumbered by high emotion the storylines progress and overlap each other clearly and intelligibly. Cressida Carré’s choreography is dazzlingly crisp and inventive which the strong ensemble cast synchronize to perfection, not missing a beat from scene, to transition, to scene. Against Stewart J. Charlesworth’s concrete set, it is Adam King’s evocative lighting that truly transports us to the steamy and sultry tropical location.
This is a finely tuned production that rides on its high values and first-rate performances from all involved. The subject matter is reduced to more of an undertow, but the score washes over us in waves of delight. That’s no metaphor – none is needed here to ensure the rave reception this show will undoubtedly receive.
“Over the course of the play, no antagonist is revealed, and little conflict truly arises, resulting in a flat conclusion”
Performance itself lies at the heart of The Prince, Abigail Thorn’s playwriting debut at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre. Characters find themselves stuck inside a multiverse of Shakespearean dramas (Though the action is mostly confined to Henry IV Part I) and at odds with the rigidity of their roles. Sam, played by Joni Ayton-Kent, who is cast as a number of nameless bit characters, is desperately searching for a way out. Mary Malone plays Jen, who finds herself in a similar situation and decides to tag along with Sam. Jen, however, finds tensions within the ways in which the primary characters perform their gender, and begins to poke holes in their constructed identities. In particular, Jen reads Thorn’s Hotspur as a trans woman and Corey Montague Sholay’s Prince Hal as a gay man. Over the course of the play, both characters waffle between conformity to their roles and self-actualization, a broader metaphor for the struggles endured and decisions faced when butting up against a rigid gender binary, especially the construct of masculinity. Though The Prince suffers from a lack of narrative coherence, the metaphor is powerful and at times quite personally affecting.
Thorn and Malone, both in principal roles, turn in strong performances. Malone plays Jen’s fish-out-of-water bewilderment with earnest charm and comedic timing. The funniest moments of the play come from the ways in which other characters play off of hers. Thorn, as Hotspur, carries the show. She peels back her character’s internal tension in careful layers and remains nimble and forceful in her handling of both her own verse and Shakespeare’s. The scenes in which she actively decides to continue in the role of the masculine hero at the expense of her own identity carry tremendous weight. It is unfortunate then, that the structural foundation of the play is unable to support these performances.
The Prince seems to eschew both coherent world-building and narrative signposting, both of which are essential when leading an audience through a multiverse. The moments when Jen is able to break the Shakespearean characters out of their performances are nearly indistinguishable for the moments when they remain stuck. In essence, these breaks happen at random, giving Jen little to learn about the mechanics of the world into which she has been dropped. Sam’s desire to escape should be easily aided by a magical map of sorts, represented by a somewhat unconvincing plastic tetrahedron, but the object only appears all-powerful in Jen’s hands, though no context is given to allow the audience to understand this discrepancy. These two characters are also denied specific or rich inner lives, even an inkling of who they might be outside of their current situation. The multiverse device primarily exists in absentia, as most of Sam and Jen’s haphazard narrative hopping occurs within Henry IV Part I. The play’s only detour into Hamlet arrives without much context and serves only as justification to shoehorn in the “To be, or not to be?” soliloquy, though Thorn delivers it well. Over the course of the play, no antagonist is revealed, and little conflict truly arises, resulting in a flat conclusion.
Martha Godfrey’s lighting design feels similarly uneven. The tubes of LED light that hang at odd angles above the playing space are visually compelling and seem to indicate different corners of the Shakespearean multiverse. But their function remains out of sync with the play throughout, illuminating, changing colours, falling and rising without impetus or textual justification. Rebecca Cartwright’s historical costumes, on the other hand, are a strong point of the play’s design—the ways in which they mutate alongside Jen’s poking and prodding is masterful.
Though it contains joyous and raucous moments, as well as symbolic significance, Thorn’s debut remains unnecessarily messy throughout, wanting for narrative drive and formal consistency.