‘I like to think of it as a grown-up musical’, says producer Lee Menzies’ in the Shaftesbury’s latest gargantuan programme, which is unfortunate because if From Here to Eternity is remembered at all, it’s likely to be as the West End’s silliest show in many a year. Based on a cocktail of Fred Zinnermann’s multi-Oscar winning Sex on the Beach classic and James Jones’ original novel, it’s a minor car-crash of campery and posturing that’s disturbing when it plays for levity and side-splitting when it strains for importance.
The story of career soldier Private Prewitt’s (Robert Lonsdale) arrival in Hawaiian G-Company, a barrack load of bored squaddies stewing in their own juices, its action centres on a series of doomed romantic trysts against the vague shadow of encroaching Pearl Harbour bombers. Prewitt is an ex-boxing champ and ex-bugler, having given up boxing on the basis of a death-bed promise to his mother and bugling for no reason whatsoever, who finds himself pressured to get back in the ring by corrupt superiors and swept off his feet by sex worker Lorene (Siubhan Harrison). This bland coupling is mirrored by the parallel story of First Sergeant Milt Warden (Darius Campbell!!!) who’s locked in an affair with his boss’s tragic wife.
The pressures of army life, the death of American martial complacency, the use and abuse of an island state by its occupiers all swim vaguely through the romantic mulch, but this musical, by Tim Rice, Bill Oakes and Stuart Brayson, critically fails to balance or elucidate them. Instead we’re left with scraps of Rocky and Private Benjamin tossed together with a sheen of homoeroticism and set to a Hawaiian beat.
Composer Stuart Brayson has possibly written too many tunes, but quite a few of them really do work. ‘G Company Blues’ is a military riff on Les Mis’s ‘Work Song’ that it totally hummable and as stirring on the second reprise as it is in the opening minutes, and the similarly macho ‘Thirty Year Man’ makes Prewitt seem considerably more interesting than he actually is. Given how many scenes take place between the beaded curtains of a bar-cum-brothel, they’re sorely lacking an evocative number like ‘One Night in Bankok’ or ‘The Heat is on in Saigon’ to snap the world into life, and the substitute ‘Don’cha Like Hawaii’ is no substitute at all. Top of the pile, musically speaking, is undoubtedly Lorene’s solo solo ‘Run Along Joe’, which shows up Act II’s ‘Love Me Forever Today’ as well as the title song for the emotionally Xeroxed nonsense that they are. It’s a fantastic tune, with some of Rice’s best lyrics, and Harrison absolutely nails it.
Harrison’s performance impresses more or less throughout, though sadly fails to find a match in Lonsdale’s muted Prewitt. There’s not a scrap of nuance to Darius, of course, and he brings more than a gust of Gone With the Wind to proceedings, but he remains an intensely watchable performer and perfect for this kind of overblown bluster. Having now stepped ably into the shoes of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in two of the pre-eminent follies of recent West End history, Darius is surely owed something of a break.
The best lines in Bill Oakes’ by-the-numbers book come from wisecracking Italian Maggio (a highly watchable Ryan Sampson), and though his ironic ‘I Love the Army’ isn’t quite wry enough to come off, the genuine warmth Sampson brings to the role stands starkly against his monochrome brothers in arms. There’s still a feeling that Oakes and Rice elide some of his more interesting complexities, his sexuality in particular, though the lack is nowhere as keenly felt as in the character of Private Bloom (Joshua Lacey). As one of the story’s apparent villains, he’s robbed of the chance to become something more. Oakes has made a gesture towards acknowledging the innate but conflicted homophobia of the army, but the resolution here feels dismissive. The heteronormative relationships are triumphantly tragic, the others are effectively swept beneath the carpet.
It may be a question of insufficient contextualisation or simply of clumsiness, but the novel’s deeply iffy politics feel inadequately answered by both book and lyrics. For a musical that revels in camp to such an extent, thanks largely to Javier De Frutos choreography – tight khakis under some seriously dynamic tension, it never resolves the story’s innately brutish and out-dated approach to homosexuality. Like some of Rice’s more troubling lyrics (with full-chorus references to ‘vermin in the sky’) the problem is not so much in intent as in execution: there is always a tightrope between accurately representing the mores of a period and sufficiently interrogating them, and From Here to Eternity falls repeatedly on the wrong side.
Like Chess before it, From Here to Eternity is too daft for its uncomfortable politics to become pernicious. Set apart from its manipulative closing projection of young Pearl Harbour victims caught in sepia mughots, it’s next to impossible to take seriously. Apart from predicting a bright future for the relatively green Brayson, it feels like another reminder that Rice did his best work in the House of Mouse, and one that will be lucky to run from here till April, let alone Eternity.