On The Waterfront, Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

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The Independent Culture

Five years short of his century, Budd Schulberg, the writer of On the Waterfront, took to the stage at the end of Steven Berkoff's sculptured, slow-motion homage and said that he'd never see a better version as long as he'd live. And he'd seen his own theatre script done in New Jersey, Chicago and on and off Broadway.

Schulberg killed off Terry Malloy when he first rethought Elia Kazan's film for the stage. But Berkoff talked him down, and Simon Merrells as Terry, bruised and beaten after giving testimony to break Mob rule at the docks, walks bravely up stage and joins the line. They don't all crowd into the warehouse, but stand there, defiant and silhouetted in the skyline. The Statue of Liberty looms over them, holding a large hook, symbolic tool of the Hoboken longshoremen.

That line segues into a stylish curtain call. Berkoff hasn't tried to ape the film. As chief gangster Johnny Friendly, he is miles away (relaxed, over-the-hill, Jewish) from the frenzied nastiness of Lee J Cobb, just as Antony Byrne as Terry's elder brother, Charley, doesn't try to rival the complex sweatiness of Rod Steiger.

Mike Robertson's lighting is eloquent: Charley and Terry's taxicab scene is done in a condensed pool of it, while the cast honk and drone on the sidelines. Terry's "I could-a been a contender" epitaph of a boxer who threw his life away for a syndicate bet is a Hamlet line for the 20th century. But it doesn't carry Brando's impact. His Terry was pushing 30; Merrells's is pushing 35. Bryony Afferson as Edie, the girl who saves him from criminality while hunting the guys who killed her brother, doesn't have the charm or urgency of Eva Marie Saint. Vincenzo Nicoli delivers the priest's speech about the dignity of work with a sweaty intensity, a less effective variation on Karl Malden's calm authority.

It's a chilly, austere, socially abstract, typically Berkoffian production, but it's not as good as the film. His great inventions are the chorus of pigeons – the cast clucking, cooing and pecking, perched on chairs – and the balletic slow-motion sequences set to music by the composer Mark Glentworth and jazzy versions of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You".

To 25 April (0844 579 1940)