Nottingham Playhouse
Opened 23 April, 2008

After a review I wrote a few years ago, Steven Berkoff informed me that I was banned, but since his letter never specified by whom or from what, I’ve continued to go to his shows. This is partly because, for all that he can get up one’s nose like a little finger, he can still turn out some fine work. This stage production of Budd Schulberg’s classic 1954 screenplay is a case in point.

The students in the audience at the performance I saw may have laughed at the portentous slow-motion work that is a Berkoff hallmark, especially in scenes of violence, but they were gradually won over. Whether in Sophocles, Schulberg or his own scripts, and be it physical or verbal, he knows the power of a choric sequence. Simon Merrells may have trouble synchronising with such ensemble physical moments, but his conviction in the central role of Terry Malloy makes his out-of-sync miming a trivial matter. It is no small feat to stop an audience thinking about Marlon Brando’s performance in the film, but Merrells does so, particularly in the crucial back-of the-car dialogue with his union-mobster brother; even the iconic line “I coulda been a contender” carries hardly any ghostly echoes of the great man. Vincenzo Nicoli almost matches this intensity in his own great dramatic aria, Father Barry’s impromptu sermon over a dead docker exhorting his colleagues to testify about the organised corruption on the piers. If I describe him as “Father Danny Aiello”, you’ll get the picture. As Terry’s inamorata and the sister of another murdered witness, Coral Beed overcomes her early shrillness to give him a plausible reason to do the right thing. And as local union boss Johnny Friendly – clearly the role that director Berkoff would have liked to play himself – Sam Douglas is a great, hulking menace, able to lift ex-boxer Terry bodily and swing him about, and clad (a terrific detail, this) in old-fashioned high-waisted trousers.

A bland, rather pointless New-York-skyline set design and a weak original score (contrasting with smart use of sourced music of the period, as when a slo-mo beating-up takes place to “I Put A Spell On You”) likewise fail to taint the sheer power of this production, which is palpably driven by a passionate belief in the material. I intend to carry on defying the ban.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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