It’s often said that they don’t make them like they used to, but From Here to Eternity is a valiant, spirited attempt to do just that. The template is surely South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1949 Broadway musicalisation of James Michener’s autobiographical stories. In From Here to Eternity, we’re on another island during the Second World War, and another autobiographically-inspired novel is the source material but the story is best known from the 1953 multiple Oscar-winning film it became.
A scene from From Here to Eternity Photo: Tristram Kenton
But whereas Rodgers and Hammerstein were natural theatrical dramatists, using songs to propel a strong narrative into which they were memorably embedded, From Here to Eternity strives for a similar epic sweep but becomes bogged down in atmosphere. Not that it is short of incident, triggered by a variety of military insubordinations: there’s everything from onstage urinating, prison chain gangs and visits to an island gay bar. There are also visits to a brothel, where the personally conflicted Private Prewitt falls for good-time girl Lorenz. Sergeant Warden, meanwhile, has an illicit affair with the platoon sergeant’s wife, where he finds himself one in a long line of men who have fallen victim to her charms.
But it’s to little dramatic purpose except for layering in a context for the dull pettiness of army island life. Nothing much happens for nearly two hours, apart from the fast entwining of those two central couples and the serial bullying of Ryan Sampson’s long-suffering Private Angelo Maggio (who gives the evening’s most galvanising performance).
The tone lurches uncertainly from sentimental to sincere, and from scenes of grit to others of wit. The elephant in the room is the knowledge that the attack on Pearl Harbour is not far away, and when the island is finally attacked in a swirl of cliched animations and inevitable bursts of blinding white light and smoke, the show finally, but too late, acquires some serious dramatic jeopardy.
It may take an eternity to get going, but there are some compensating pleasures along the way. The show is billed as “Tim Rice’s epic new musical”, but although he is the star name in returning with a brand-new show for the first time in 13 years, it also heralds the welcome arrival to the West End stage of a new British composing voice in Stuart Brayson, who has provided an eclectic score full of surging melodies and anthemic refrains.
Bill Oakes’ book fails to bind it by anchoring the songs properly, but Tamara Harvey marshals proceedings efficiently enough with a massive company of 33 giving it their all. Sometimes they give it too much, but Robert Lonsdale - new to musicals but a strong leading man - brings an appealing complexity to Private Prewitt. Darius Campbell is a little wooden in the acting stakes as Warden, but has a gruff-voiced singing appeal.
Atmospheric contributions are also made by Javier de Frutos whose choreography is strikingly angular, and set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour, who has installed a false proscenium arch over the Shaftesbury’s own and a series of crumbling arches behind it that suggest we could be back in the world of Sondheim’s Follies. And musical supervisor David White provides a rich orchestral sound.
Some internet wags have already dubbed the show From Here to November. Although I don’t want to write it off that quickly, I do wonder what the long-term prospects are for a show that is deadly earnest and draining to watch.