18 January 2014

From Here to Eternity - Shaftesbury Theatre, Wednesday 15th January 2014

In 1941, bugler Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt transfers to G Company on the island of Oahu. Captain Holmes has heard he is a talented middleweight boxer and wants him to join his regimental boxing team. Prewitt refuses, having stopped fighting after blinding his sparring partner. Holmes is adamant, but so is Prewitt. Holmes makes life as miserable as possible for Prewitt, hoping he will give in and orders First Sergeant Milton Warden to prepare court martial papers after Sergeant Galovitch insults Prewitt to goad him, then gives an unreasonable order which Prewitt refuses to obey. Warden, however, suggests that he try to get Prewitt to change his mind by doubling up on company punishment. The other non-commissioned officers assist in the conspiracy. Prewitt is supported only by his friend, Private Maggio.  
Warden begins an affair with Holmes' neglected wife Karen. As their relationship develops, Warden asks Karen about her affairs to test her sincerity. She says that has been unfaithful to her husband for most of their marriage having had to undergo hysterectomy as a result of being infected with an STD by her husband after he had visited a prostitute. Prewitt and Maggio spend their liberty at the New Congress Club, where Prewitt falls for one of the whores, Lorene, who is saving all she earns in pursuit of a respectable life back on the mainland.  
Maggio and Staff Sergeant Judson nearly come to blows at the club. Judson warns Maggio that sooner or later he will end up in the stockade, where he is the Sergeant of the Guard. Karen tells Warden that if he became an officer, she could divorce Holmes and marry him. Warden reluctantly agrees to consider it. Warden starts to fall in love with Lorene. Both men, broke, try and make some extra cash by flirting with men at a local gay club, where they spot Bloom, another member of the company. The military police arrest Maggio, and he is sentenced to six months in the stockade, where he is beaten to death. Their friendship is mocked by Judson. Prewitt tracks Judson down and kills him with the same switchblade Judson pulled on Maggio earlier, but sustains a serious stomach wound and goes into hiding at Lorene's house.  
The Japanese attack Pearl Harbour. Prewitt attempts to rejoin his company under cover of darkness but is shot dead by a patrol. Warden realises that he cannot leave his men. Lorene leaves for the mainland, accompanied by Karen. 

Private Robert Prewitt – Robert Lonsdale
Private Angelo Maggio – Ryan Simpson 
First Sergeant Milt Warden – Darius Campbell
Captain Holmes – Martin Marquez
Karen Holmes – Rebecca Thornhill
Lorene – Siubhan Harrison

Creative Team

Music – Stuart Brayson
Lyrics – Tim Rice
Script – Bill Oakes
Director – Tamara Harve
Sets and Costume – Soutra Gilmour
Choreography – Javier de Frutos

The power of contrast, ladies and germs. Late last year we had the joyous enthusiasm that was Candide followed by the awfulness 24 hours later that was The Duck House. Yesterday we had Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – an expensive, hyped up, slick load of emptiness - and today we have From Here to Eternity, an intelligent, well crafted, solid piece of musical theatre. The power of contrast.

I admit that I went in expecting very little. The Shaftesbury has nearly always been a graveyard for productions – apart from Follies and They’re Playing Our Song in the early 80s and Hairspray, there have been few major success stories here. Notable among disasters was the Michael Barrymore “comeback show” that sold about 17 tickets in total and closed the day after it opened, a musical called Napoleon (no, me neither) and a musical version of The Far Pavilions (no, me neither). So I wasn’t expecting much. I had only the very vaguest idea of what the story might be about (the only bit of the film I’ve seen is the clip where Burt Lancaster rolls around in the surf with Deborah Kerr, the little minx). I wasn’t even aware that it was based on a book. The only clues I had came from the foyer display – I got the vague idea that it was set sometime during WW2 and possibly somewhere like Hawaii. I knew Darius Campbell was in it – he was in Carmen at the O2 but I didn’t manage to spot him because the direction was so poor and we were sitting about 2/3 of a mile away from the stage, and I lusted after him in Gone With The Wind but frankly, my dear, he didn’t give a damn. I knew it was a musical, so I was more or less expecting a slightly different version of South Pacific. You know, something lightweight and a little vacuous. Trite is the word I think I used. I came out shaking with emotion and wiping tears from my eyes, having sat through 2 ¾ hours that whizzed past like a bullet. There was so much talent on display that frankly, my dear, I don’t really know where to start

How about starting with the music then? Well, the composer and lyricist make those of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory look like total, utter amateurs. Granted that the lyrics are by Tim Rice. The score is amazing, full of solid, tuneful numbers that stick in the brain (I am still humming a couple of them – always the sign of decent music, whereas if you asked me to give you a couple of bars from Charlie then I would have to look at you blankly and sidle away in embarrassment). The harmonies are powerful and sung with gusto. The lyrics are meaningful and never schmaltzy. I did have a moment’s concern that the show’s title number was going to be a big power ballad with “From Here to Eternity” repeated ad nauseam, but the expression is used once and once only. You’re not bashed around the head with it. There is a touching love duet (Love Me Forever Today), a great Blues number, a rousing finish to Act One and an Act Two finale that sticks a hand down your throat, grabs your heart and twists it until it cries. There are 18 (18!) musicians in the pit – and not a bar of it clicktracked, dammit. It sounds like a Hollywood Blockbuster

And the story? You know, I can tell why this show isn’t doing the big business that it deserves; its because its well written, serious and intelligent, and that ain’t what is selling in the West End at the moment. Fluff is what is selling. And that is a real shame. Also, this is a show that you could quite happily take practically anyone to. Your Auntie Doreen will like it (she’s seen the film and she likes a bit of romance) and so will your Uncle Fred (its got soldiers in it, it has a butch storyline and it won’t insult his intelligence). But the kid’s won’t enjoy it – and that’s why it isn’t selling. Because this is a show for grown up people. Adults who can follow a storyline and think for themselves. Chantelle and Tracy are best sent to go see The Bodyguard, because this isn’t for them, either. They will be missing out on a bloody good night at the theatre, though

The sets are simple and aren’t intrusive and don’t get in the way of the action. The choreography is, simply, stunning. Athletic, perfectly drilled and stunning. The sheer muscularity of the men’s routines is amazing. Nobody puts a foot wrong, everything is done with parade-ground precision. If anyone you know is still of the opinion that dancers are camp, this show will disabuse them of that. These are MEN, and they ain’t gonna let you forget it.

The cast (one of the biggest I’ve seen on a stage in some considerable time) are all absolutely top notch. Robert Lonsdale is amazing – he sings like a rock tenor, acts like his life depends on it, plays the guitar like a professional – and displays serious talent, all the more amazing in that according to his biog in the programme he doesn’t have a background in musical theatre. There is a nicely observed performance from Darius Campbell as Milt Warden – nothing flashy, nothing “starry luvvie”, but quiet, restrained and intelligent. I was half expecting him to get the final bow at the curtain because of his “star status” but no, even this is well handled and the final call is Lonsdale’s, which is as it should be. Shiubhan Harrison gives an intelligent performance, sings like a blackbird, dances with grace and charm and wisely avoids the stereotypical “tart with a heart” portrayal that her role could so easily become in less talented hands. There is moving support from Ryan Sampson as Maggio and a performance of quiet restraint that Deborah Kerr would have been proud of from Rebecca Thornhill as Karen

All in all, it’s an evening that the entire cast should be proud of. Its not your average lightweight night out in the West End and certainly none the worse for that. It’s the type of show that there should be more of. And its closing in April. Go and see it. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Buy a ticket (in fact, buy two, because I want to see it again and I’ll happily come with you). Take a gamble – because believe me, this time it will pay off.

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