It’s easy to see why playwright Bryony Lavery would be drawn to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock – a book that combines a seedy seaside thriller with a meditation on the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”. It cover similar thematic ground to her best-known play, Frozen:  a fight between good and evil, the line between the two.
Seventeen-year-old Pinkie is a gangster on the rise. He’s already a big fish in Brighton, having taken over after the old boss was killed. But his gang’s revenge-murder of a newspaperman goes awry when Pinkie discovers that there’s a witness, Rose, a young waitress, whose testimony could bring the law to their door. So, he decides to convince her to marry him, because as his wife anything she says against him would be inadmissible. This sets in motion a twisted Romeo and Juliet story, one fuelled by hate and disgust as much as love.
Even though Pinkie threatens to splash vitriol in Rose’s face the first time they meet, she is drawn to him. Though he is frequently indifferent and often hostile, she seems to accept this is what love looks like.
Lavery highlights the characters’ naivety and youth. Like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, they are kids playing at being grown ups. Pinkie might be a menacing sociopath but he squirms with discomfort during a sex scene at the pictures – this being Greene, sin, shame and Catholic guilt feature prominently.
Jacob James Beswick plays Pinkie with a hands-in-pockets swagger and a jagged jutting chin. He exudes a coke bottle volatility. He’s a weapon on legs. And yet you can see through the cracks in his bravado – as he gets further and further out of his depth, he looks increasingly like a boy.
As played by Sarah Middleton, Rose is pliant, but not daft. She has Pinkie’s number. As Ida, the barmaid-cum-detective who makes it her mission to protect Rose, Gloria Onitiri gives a performance of warmth and strength. In a near-monochrome staging, she cuts a striking figure in crimson and leopard print. She’s a woman unafraid to make a noise. She is also the heart of the play.
Directed by Pilot Theatre’s Esther Richardson, the production is propulsive and energetic. Movement is used to evoke the fug of pubs and the thrill of the racetrack in a manner that brings to mind the work of Sally Cookson.
The ensemble cast work well together to play Pinkie’s minions and other key characters. Sara Perks’ design eschews seaside colours for a muted palette – it verges on the murky – while her set shifts from pub to bedroom to the skeleton of Brighton’s West Pier. Hannah Peel’s music adds a percussive edge to proceedings.
While Lavery’s adaption doesn’t quite avoid the choppy, episodic feel of many page-to-stage adaptions, it has both clarity and humanity, and it gets right inside Pinkie and Rose’s strange, sad relationship, with all its need and loathing.