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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 16th October 2004

Brighton Rock / How Love is Spelt / How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Brighton Rock, a new musical based on Graham Greene's pulp novel, is less than the sum of its parts. Normally, when a play is bad, it's because the underlying story structure is flawed, but that isn't the case here. Greene classified Brighton Rock as an "entertainment", rather than a serious novel, and, possibly for that reason, it's plot is more than up to the task of keeping this particular show on the road. Indeed, the best thing about Brighton Rock is the book by Giles Havergal. He's done a very workmanlike job of faithfully adapting Greene's novel for the stage and the fact that it remains so watchable, in spite of its shortcomings, is in large part down to him.

The lead performances are good, too. As Pinkie, the 17-year-old crime lord, Michael Jibson strikes just the right balance of petulant vulnerability and psychopathic menace. He's not someone you'd like to meet in a dark alley, let me tell you. His complexion is so luminously pale it would be like coming face-to-face with the moon.

Better still is Sophia Ragavelas, the teenage waitress who falls in love with the babyfaced gangster. Her youthful fatalism is so convincing, I believed in her from start to finish--even when she was struggling with Don Black's appalling lyrics, such as endlessly repeating the phrase "I believe in you".

In spite of these assets, though, Brighton Rock never adds up to much. At no point in the evening did I have a sense of what the people behind it were trying to do. Why did they think that this macabre thriller, which is freighted with Graham Greene's gloomy Catholicism, would make a good musical? Were they inspired by Sweeney Todd? If so, they should have taken a leaf out of Sondheim's book and turned Brighton Rock into an over-the-top, grand guignol farce. Part of the problem is that it's too straight--in every sense of the word. It's tasteful when it should be outrageous and sober when it should be giddy. Watching it is a strangely joyless experience.

How Love Is Spelt, by contrast, is a very solid piece of work. It's about the efforts of a 20-year-old girl to find love and companionship in some godforsaken part of South London--and several of the scenes carry a real erotic charge. This is thanks to a spellbinding central performance by Kay Lyon who has the gift of seeming completely natural, even while sitting in front of 150 people in what amounts to a function room above a pub. The Bush has a tradition of social realism--many of its productions are actually set in pubs--but few performances are as real as this. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Kay Lyon joins the cast of EastEnders.

The opening scene, in which the lovelorn girl awakes to find the remnants of a drunken one-night stand in her bed, is easily the best. Joe Armstrong is very funny as the unwelcome houseguest, though he's helped by some very sharp writing from Chloe Moss. Here he is trying to explain why he's mistakenly been using the expression "string in my step" instead of "spring in my step" all his life: "They thought I was dyslexic in school...for years. Got proper special treatment, the works. Turned out I was just fuckin' thick." With dialogue as good as that, I wouldn't be surprised if the playwright is poached by EastEnders as well.

I'm taking a sabbatical as The Spectator's theatre critic for the next eight weeks, but I have a good excuse. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, the stage adaptation of my book, is going into the West End and, in an act of sheer lunacy, I'll be playing myself. I have absolutely no doubt that my colleagues will be perfectly beastly, so in the hope of getting at least one good notice I'd like to take this opportunity to review myself.

Toby Young gives a dazzling comic performance in this hilarious tour de force about his misadventures in New York. Everyone thought he was making a terrible mistake by agreeing to appear in this play, particularly his wife, but, against all odds, he's turned it into a huge triumph. As the poet said, fortune favours the bold.

Special offer for Spectator readers. Call the Arts Theatre on 020-7836-3334 and quote "Spectator Offer" and you'll be entitled to top price West End tickets for for £15. Offer limited to first two weeks.

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