REVIEW: From Here To Eternity, Shaftesbury Theatre ✭✭✭

Last Updated on 17th July 2014

From Here To Eternity
From Here To Eternity at the Shaftesbury Theatre

From Here To Eternity
Shaftesbury Theatre
October 10 2013
3 Stars

Now in previews at the Shaftesbury Theatre is the Tamara Harvey directed From Here To Eternity, a musical with Book by Bill Oakes, Lyrics from Sir Tim Rice and Music by Stuart Brayson.

Having never read the book by James Jones, but knowing the famous Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr/Frank Sinatra/Donna Reed Academy Award winning film, the plot of this musical version was, to say the least, surprising, perhaps following the original book more closely, perhaps being “updated”.

Revealing the fate of the central character in the first scene makes no sense as the proceedings unfold and merely serves to rob later scenes of poignancy and real dramatic punch. It’s an odd and surprising dramatic choice for the theatre even though the film went that way.

What is not surprising is that the set is by the ubiquitous Soutra Gilmour and it works very effectively, especially in tandem with Bruno Poet’s lighting. The piece is set in the weeks leading up to the Pearl Harbour bombing and so the set needs to evoke the sense of Hawaii and the dreary commonplace life of the Army recruits stationed there. Gilmour makes it all work very well, better perhaps than the narrative deserves, although in the course of the two key love stories more intimate spaces might have been preferable.

Use of some clever and usually muted video footage (not however in the finale of Act One when the sudden video assault of waves of huge proportions makes you wonder if this is a tsunami coming or just a poor reflection of the iconic Lancaster/Kerr sex-in-the-waves moment) generally assists, but equally serves as a palpable reminder of the film.

So, when it came, the sequence in the Gay Bar was as jarring, astonishing and confusing as it would be, say, if there was a black and white minstrel number suddenly placed into Act One of Les Miserables. And the sub-plot that centred upon it was not properly explained so you are left wondering, even more, about the point of the whole sequence, especially as the result is to totally confuse the audience about a key character, the Sinatra role from the film: is he secretly homophobic? Is he a vicious thief? Is he someone who leads on and then assaults lonely gay men? And, if any of the above, why do they let him back into their club? And why would the happy go-lucky, fun, mad-for-girls, Italian cynic with a strong spirit (here played most winningly by Ryan Sampson) do this stuff anyway? Is he imprisoned for being gay?

It turns out that the gay references were originally censored from the book but have in recent years been reinstated by the deceased author’s daughter. The key point was that the Sinatra/Sampson character would let older men “blow him” for money and he needed the money because times were tough in the army. Perhaps the revised book makes all this comprehensible but, curiously, this musical version does not.

But this is not all that is surprising here. Especially good is the way Gilmour evokes the sense of Mrs Kipfer’s whorehouse/club where the Army boys take their recreation. It is seedy yet beguiling and it is the first real glimpse of the proper sense of time of the story. Indeed, every time the whorehouse girls appear, things improve. This is not down to Mrs Kipfer (a poor turn from Julie Armstrong) but to the frisson that is created when the fabulous female ensemble appears (led by Lucinda Shaw, who perfectly evokes the Ava Gardner feel necessary here, and a feisty Rebecca Sutherland) – really most of the best numbers in this show involve them: Don’cha Like Hawaii, You Got The Money and The Boys of ’41.

This is not to denigrate the male ensemble, but, in truth, they are no match for the girls. This is meant to be a hard company of boxing army lifers: but a deal of people have been cast who cannot credibly meet that description. Still, there is excellent masculine work from Warren Sollars, James Ballanger, Joshua Lacey (slightly out of his comfort zone as the troubled, vicious gay soldier Bloom), Stephen Webb and Matthew Wesley.

Javier De Frutos choreographs the men with balletic precision, and there are some sections which are quite electric (the slow motion work is very good if a bit prolonged) and impressive. There is a clever realisation of the bombing of Pearl Harbour and it’s aftermath.

The entire ensemble sings very very well and the big choral numbers get full throttle.

Sadly, none of the major characters is portrayed as well as the writing demands – these are flawed, real people with complex backgrounds and motivations, not one dimensional ciphers. Once again, as is so often the case in Musicals on the West End, the casting turns out to work against the aims and needs of the piece.

Closest to the mark is Robert Lonsdale as the central character, Prewitt, but he does not sing quite well enough or convey the undercurrents and sensibilities of this haunted man who runs away to the Army to hide but fails to achieve any of his aims, yet curiously adheres to a very moral code. It’s a tough role – boxer, bugler, wise-guy, lover, friend, killer – and it needs more depth than Lonsdale provides – but it is early days yet and he may well grow in the role as performances are notched up.

Certainly, he and Sampson are the ones to watch here.

The other principals range from forgettable (Susan Harrison, Rebecca Thornhill, Darius Campbell) to embarrassing (Martin Marquez, David Stoller, Brian Doherty) – this is the West End, not a disused music hall: at up to £90 a ticket, audiences should expect excellence in performance, not the pets of Casting Agents and Directors with little judgment.

Most critically, there is no sexual chemistry between the two sets of romantic leads.
Harvey must take the lion’s share of the blame for all this: her vision for the performances, the drama, the tension and turns is mediocre where it needs to be inspirational.

Of course, none of the leads or Harvey are helped by the lacklustre book or the sometimes banal music and lyrics. There is a serious adult story to be told here, but it is kept under heel.
There are some great numbers – Something In Return is especially impressive and one can see that, with other voices, the title song could soar.

Too much of the score is indifferent and there are musical moments which are expected because of the characters and situations but which never come: Oakes’ book does not afford the composer the right chances. It is difficult to shake the feeling that a ruthless producer with acute theatrical sensibilities could turn this production around, into something fresh and remarkable.

But the middle ground here trodden, while generally mostly entertaining (thanks entirely to the terrific ensemble, Sampson and Lonsdale) falls short of the fascinating and dramatic musical work this could be.

Sir Tim describes the work as a grown-up musical: not sure what that means, but one cannot but think everyone would been better off if this piece was mature in tone and execution rather than “grown-up”.

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