REVIEW: My Brilliant Friend, National Theatre London ✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews My Brilliant Friend adapted by April De Angelis based on Elena Ferrante’s novel now playing at the National Theatre, London.

My Brilliant Friend review National Theatre
Ben Turner and Niamh Cusack in My Brilliant Friend. Photo: Marc Brenner

My Brilliant Friend.
The National Theatre, (Olivier)
26 November 2019
3 Stars
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For a while, when Rufus Norris became Artistic Director, the National struggled to fill the Olivier stage with a successful contemporary new play. This year they may have solved that problem by staging adaptations of successful novels. In the summer,  Small Island was one of the productions of the year, and an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is due next month, albeit in the Dorfman. Here we have an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novels that form My Brilliant Friend, and April De Angelis’s adaptation has much to recommend it, ambitious and epic in its reach.

My Brilliant Friend
The company of My Brilliant Friend. Photo: Marc Brenner

The central relationship is of two friends, Lenu and Lila, growing up in post-war Naples and taking on the might and corruption of the gangsters that rule their neighbourhood and families, in particular, the Sarratore brothers and their mother. Over decades they fight the corruption with words, Lila as a computer expert and investigative journalism, Lenu through fictionalising the family and becoming a successful author. Director Melly Still has shaped a production, along with the adaptation, of fine clarity, with a good ensemble, most of them multi rolling with ease. Beginning when they first meet as children, Niamh Cusack is excellent as Lenu, taking us convincingly through the years and physically perfect at playing the age of her character as she grows throughout the story. Catherine McCormack has a tough job to portray the world-weariness and cynicism of Lila as a child, she seems to know too much for her younger age, but grows in stature as the character ages and her anger at injustice crystallises. The range of the material is truly epic, not being just the story of these two women, but of politics, feminism and Italy itself. The contrasts are drawn very much in black and white tones, it’s easy to be on the side of the women because the men are universally so obnoxious, even the ones that appear sympathetic to the cause at first. Ben Turner is particularly brutally menacing as Nino Sarratore, and a sense of unease is portrayed every time the family enter the stage.

National Theatre London
Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack. Photo: Marc Brenner

Although set in Naples, the cast appear to employ their native accents, and the show often sounds as if it could be set in the docks of Cardiff or Liverpool, Italian exists mainly in the songs played. Although much is done to fill the massive stage with projections and movement, Soutra Gilmour’s concrete design often looks a little austere, and leads to many cast members unnecessarily running up and down steps and endlessly chasing each other around and calling out names, which becomes tedious very quickly. De Angelis has done a great job in compacting the story, with the pace in Part One being fast and involving. However, the beginning of Part two drags and the final section then feels like a hyper Christmas Day episode of a soap opera, it’s almost four weddings and fifty funerals.

My Brilliant Friend
Catherine McCormack., Toby Wharton, David Judge, Emily Wachter. Photo: Marc Brenner

However, Still’s inventive direction creates many satisfying moments, in particular, the transitions between scenes, and the use, for example, of clothing to symbolise sexual assault, and some effective puppetry. Ultimately, however, I was left caring little for the characters. They don’t appear to be brilliant friends that much; in fact, their relationship is quite toxic. While this complicates their interactions quite well, I was left with little to root for.

Until 22 February 2020

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