LONDON — The British theater deserves credit at the moment for advancing the cause of literacy, and not just because Kevin Spacey chose to launch his Old Vic tenure with a play that derives its title from the obscure Latin word, cloaca (meaning “sewer”). Suddenly, every other show seems to be based on a novel, and a heavy-duty one, at that: We’re not talking the none-too-lamented 1991 West End theater version of Stephen King’s “Misery,” which starred Sharon Gless.
Within the past few weeks, we’ve had the Almeida musical preem of “Brighton Rock,” the long-aborning tuner based on the Graham Greene novel, as well as “Little Women,” a U.K. stage version of the beloved American novel that is not to be confused with the Broadway-bound musical inspired by the same book.
And doing sellout biz, despite mixed reviews, is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest $7 million venture “The Woman in White,” drawn from the Wilkie Collins thriller (with a dash of Dickens thrown in).
That musical, in turn, is by no means to be confused with the two-character play “The Woman in Black,” adapted by Stephen Malatratt from the book by Susan Hill, now in its 16th year — a run of nearly Lloyd Webber-like proportions.
“Brighton Rock” may have had comparable ambitions: After all, Greene’s 1938 novel has long held a local fascination as a portrait of a coastal gangland culture that suggests Anglicized Quentin Tarantino displaced to the seaside. And many know the fiercely moralistic book from its 1947 film, which starred a young Richard Attenborough as the psychopathic Pinkie. That movie was itself based on a 1942 play, which gave one reason to hope a stage musical might be possible, especially one directed by Attenborough’s son, Michael, who runs the Almeida. But, alas, no.
The issue is absolutely not, as some have suggested, that “Brighton Rock” can’t be a musical: imagine the shimmering, scary qualities that Stephen Sondheim, for one, might have brought to the material. But as scored by five-time Academy Award winner John Barry and with lyrics by veteran Don Black (“Sunset Boulevard”), this “Brighton Rock” is considerably less threatening than the Almeida’s neighboring Islington on an average Saturday night.
Part of the problem is one of courage, or lack thereof: In telling of the doomed romance between the once traumatized, now-unfeeling Pinkie (played by Macaulay Culkin lookalike Michael Jibson, who’s oddly blank in the part) and his anxiously doe-eyed Rose (Sophia Ragavelas), “Brighton Rock” chronicles the descent into affectlessness of a teenager wedded — in Greene’s decidedly Catholic view of things — primarily to Hell: “Me, I don’t feel nothin’,” he announces. That bond, however disturbed, doesn’t lend itself to the yearning, overwrought emotionalism of numbers like “You Love Who You Love” (shouldn’t that be “whom”), or so Rose tells us, “Come What May.” Elsewhere, Black’s lyrics leave you mouthing along in anticipation of the rhymes: “I could tell all along/he never would learn right from wrong.”
“Brighton Rock” has come to the Almeida courtesy of West End impresario Bill Kenwright, who was hoping to transfer the show from north London to the Gielgud Theater on Shaftesbury Avenue for a sustained run. Indeed, Attenborough’s fatally underpowered production occasionally hints at the same doomy fatalism that has made a West End mainstay out of the Kenwright-produced (and still running) “Blood Brothers”: “It’s all decided from the start” comes a portentous pronouncement late on. But that earlier show, like it or not and however naive it undoubtedly is, does deliver to an audience, particularly a British one. By contrast, “Brighton Rock,” rather like its central character, leaves you totally cold.
So, I’m afraid, does the Novel Theater version of “Little Women” that has arrived at the Duchess Theater, presumably to get a headstart on holiday trade, which is just one of the times when adapter Emma Reeves’ take on the Louisa May Alcott has played London before. (This is in fact the production’s fourth London outing, though its first to hit the West End.)
Truth to tell, there is something pleasingly quaint about so unabashedly earnest an enterprise, starting with a set by Rachel Payne that looks as if the cast assembled it then and there, with just minutes to spare before the performance.
However, anyone who has enjoyed the story of the four March sisters growing up in difficult circumstances during the American Civil War will quickly lose interest in an approach that has somewhat the feel of an overeager school play, notwithstanding the commitment that a cast of (mostly) young unknowns bring to it.
Other U.K. companies like Shared Experience, for instance, have brought a ripe (sometimes overripe) physicality to the translation of words to images in play versions of George Eliot and E.M. Forster, among others, but “Little Women” takes the more conservative approach. The exposition is as neat and tidy as the appeal for tears is unearned, though that didn’t stop the press night from being punctuated by the sounds of snorting into tissues. The title virtually guarantees a cry.
Still, it’s hard not to chafe at the sort of narrative shorthand here that is admirably rejected by Charlotte Jones in her version of “The Woman in White” (even if the few projections in “Little Women” do establish place far more swiftly than all the CGI hyperactivity in “Woman in White”). “People always seem to love the wrong people, don’t they,” remarks the most robust of the “little women,” the tomboyish Jo (Sarah Grochala), in an observation that comes across less as authentic Alcott than diluted Chekhov: The play, and Andrew Loudon’s production of it, are the theatrical equivalent of easy listening for those who, God forbid, don’t like a good, hard read.