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My Brilliant Friend review at Rose Theatre, Kingston – ‘dazzling performances’

Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack in My Brilliant Friend at Rose Theatre, Kingston. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels has become a literary phenomenon. Delicate and brutal, the books lay bare the complexities of female friendship and the struggle of women in patriarchal Italy.

April de Angelis’ adaptation, directed by Melly Still, is split into two parts totalling five hours. It has many strengths, but it’s inconsistent and lacks a driving force.

My Brilliant Friend follows narrator Lenu and best friend Lila across a period of 60 years. Beginning in 1950 the play takes the pulse of their friendship from early childhood to old age, painting the tight community of neighbours, friends, lovers around them as it progresses.

The two main roles are brilliantly cast. Niamh Cusack uses her natural likeability and vulnerability to their fullest here as Lenu, while McCormack’s bitter edge, her fixed scowl make her a fantastically complex anti-hero. McCormack’s Lila gives us a woman quietly, powerfully raging, set dead against a world so set against her and her gender.

Yet, while those two are painted in rich detail, with clarity and precision on this huge canvas, all around them are blurred and blocky, caricatures alongside the central pair. Still’s production draws on cinematic tropes as much as theatrical ones, with no small debt to the Mafioso Italy of films such as The Godfather, and there’s a risk that these familiar, almost comic representations trivialise the story’s serious points.

Still incorporates a few clever devices: in moments of extreme violence – when Lila is pushed off a balcony, or raped by her husband – she separates from her body into an empty form made of cloth, a rag doll that the violence can’t hurt. And yet other set pieces are unimaginative, such as billowing sheets representing the sea.

Still’s production conveys a sense of the onslaught of time and those staggering differences between generations in Italy’s post-war years, the country’s most evolutionary decades since Risorgimento a century before. But this colossal story is rushed and reduced. It feels relentlessly episodic, trying to cram as much of the books’ plot in as possible.

A major distraction throughout is the frequent interruption by music – Bowie, The Carpenters – reminding us what decade we’re in. The songs play harshly and too loudly, disrupting rather than complementing the onstage action. The Rose’s tall thrust stage, built into rusting towers of scaffold in Soutra Gilmour’s set, never quite feels full or captures the cheek-by-jowl bustle of the Neapolitan neighbourhood. Voices get lost, lines are swallowed.

At its best the production has the hazy, gauzy quality of remembered time, and the intricacies, dependencies and inequalities of the central friendship are on dazzling display. But the production lacks unification. As it churns through the plot in different modes and styles, some of its own brilliance gets lost.

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An inconsistent adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s popular novels elevated by two dazzling central performances