Richard Attenborough made an indelibly chilling impression as Pinkie, the 17-year-old psychotic gang-leader who refuses salvation, in the 1947 movie of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Now, his son Michael, the artistic director of the Almeida, directs a new musical version, with a score by John Barry, lyrics by Don Black and adaptation by Giles Havergal.
It would be an understatement to say that the Pinkie we've known does not have a song in his heart. Desolation, yes; defensive contempt for the world he yearns to dominate; acute sexual revulsion and a belief in the certainty of hell - these feelings crowd his Catholic-indoctrinated soul.
But in the book and film, it would be as easy to picture Pinkie breaking into a Maori fertility dance as imagine him launching into a ditty. There are, after all, more romantic reasons for marrying a young heroine than the desire to buy her silence - wives not being required to give evidence against their husbands in murder trials.
The creators of this show try to get round that difficulty by using song as a way into Pinkie's disturbed consciousness. This works best in numbers such as "Some Things Never Leave You", in which his awkward dance with Rose, the girl who knows the falsity of his alibi, is freeze-framed while Pinkie recalls the trauma of witnessing his parents' Saturday-night sex sessions - an experience that left him frigid until the exigencies of crime force him into this relationship. Also powerful is his post-coital soul-searching, when he muses that "Skin on skin/ Breath on breath... Is like a living death".
But there are snags. One is that, while Michael Jibson gives a fair performance, he never manages to communicate Pinkie's hypnotic menace. He's blandly baby-faced, whereas Pinkie is a freakish mix of youth and precocious age. Then again, these inner-monologue songs - Sophia Ragavelas's Rose is lumbered with several - contribute to the musical's fatal lack of mesmeric momentum toward disaster.The ensemble Brighton numbers are mostly standard-issue British chirpiness. They look cramped on Lez Brotherston's composite design and fail to offset the bleakness.
Harriet Thorpe is blowsily winning as Ida, the ageing belle who determines to bring Pinkie to justice, but the character is a victim of the religious snobbery in this piece. Being Catholics, Pinkie and Rose know about good and evil and are therefore superior to decent, law-abiding Ida. A brilliant but repellent novel has been turned into a dutiful but dull musical. Not worth the price of a deck chair.
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