"Powerful rendition of dockside drama"
by Diane Samuels for remotegoat on 25/02/09

As you enter the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to see Stephen Berkoff's theatrical version of this 1950's classic movie, you are greeted, across the back of the stage, by the image of a toppling Statue of Liberty wielding a Longshoreman's grappling hook. And then a row of plain wooden chairs. And then a steeply-raked bare stage. Unlike Knee High's production of "Brief Encounter" in the cinema over the road in 2007/08 which adapted another classic from the middle of the last century for the stage using projected imagery, a mock up of a railway station, many weird and wonderful props and a live band, this is what Peter Brook once described as Rough Theatre. Berkoff has been relying solely upon his actors, their bodies and voices, to do all the work and make the magic together since the late 1960s. The good news is that not only does this style of physical ensemble theatre, which has led the way and been evolved by new generations of theatre makers over the last decades, still pack a punch but On The Waterfront is an inspired choice of story to tell this way.

Marlon Brando played the lead role of Terry Malloy in the film. So Simon Merrells has to emerge from an iconic shadow. He does so by making the role his own, capturing the ex prize fighter's surly vulnerability and growing sense of conscience with presence and vitality. The play begins with his "crime", summoning a neighbour to meet him knowing that the mob are ready to pounce. This is the docks of New York where gangs of organized criminals rule and the dockworkers are too terrified to speak out against them. Terry's big brother Charlie, played by Antony Byrne with muscle that melts into brotherly loyalty, is the right hand man of Berkoff's cool, mean Johnny Friendly the local crime boss. But then Terry meets the sister, Edie, of the man whose murder he aided and he begins to fall not only for her but for the calls for truth and justice of the local priest, Father Doyle, played with growing conviction by Alex Mc Sweeny. When more men are murdered to stop them from squealing, the pressure increases and then Terry is handed a supina and told to appear in court.

The all male company, but for the sole female presence of Coral Beed's sweet, strong Edie, form a chorus that effortlessly transforms itself from dockworkers into hoodlums and Terry's pet pigeons. After a slow start in which the world of the play takes time to come clear, the pace begins to pick up by the middle of act one. Act two is cracking with one of the most moving, beautifully evoked brother scenes I've seen for a very long time, in a car with the company humming the engine as Charlie and Terry are driven towards what is surely to be the nemesis of at least one of them. This is epic Greek theatre for our very own times by way of a lost cinematic era.

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