I don’t, as rule, much like musicals – those thinly plotted things that stop just as they’re getting interesting and spoil everything with some cheesy, generic songs, all jazz-hands and bellowing pipes.
I do like The Go-Between, LP Hartley’s 1953 novel. Reminded by the BBC’s excellent recent adaptation, it was reread with pleasure. A seemingly simple, yet haunting tale of the stifling upper-class Edwardian world of class divide and repressed emotion seen through the prism of the naive 12-year-old middle-class Leo’s burgeoning sexuality. It’s all quintessential English lyricism and manners on the surface with bubbling passion and betrayal beneath. God, posh people are awful. No wonder Pinter wrote a famous 70s film adaptation.
But is this the subject of a musical? No expert on the parameters of the genre, I remain none the wiser because I’m still not sure what this adaptation of The Go-Between is. With the only music (by Richard Taylor) coming from a piano on stage (played by Nigel Lilley), most of the dialogue sung and little that threatens to trouble a singalong tune, it feels more like a play with people who are really, really good singers.
Yet it is charming: the antithesis of those gaudy West End cartoon-shows. It’s sure to disappoint lovers of that style but it is pleasing that a lyrical, gentle and thoughtful show can still make it to one of our loveliest theatres.
And, of course, Michael Crawford. Despite his voiced concern about a return to the stage at his age, he is effortless, his voice gentle like a warm blanket around you, all soft restraint. In his knitted green waistcoat, he’s the perfect kindly old man daring to look into the troubled pools of his past. You’ll want to leap on stage a give him a big hug.
He stalks the stage as older Leo, a shadow to his younger self, played with oodles of gusto and pre-teen curiosity by William Thompson. Young Leo is socially out of place and unaware of the rigid rules regarding conduct, as he is manipulated into becoming the go-between for the illicit and ultimately tragic affair between the beautiful Marian (played by Gemma Sutton) and the well-made tenant farmer Ted Burgess, played with suitable vigour by Stuart Ward.
It’s the youngsters who steal the show. Young Leo is almost constantly on stage, exuding charm and innocence, voice of an angel. His snooty, imperious friend, the would-be lord of the manor Marcus is perfectly embodied by Archie Stevens.
The whole things feels at once daring and restrained. Deliciously free from the tyranny of the ‘big’ set, Roger Haines’ direction and Michael Pavelka’s design moodily suggests the crumbling Edwardian glamour of the country estate, with grass growing around the chairs, and credits its audience with enough intelligence to follow its abstractions.
There is some lumpiness in the narrative: while pleasingly subtle at times, some choices seem a little on-the-nose. I’d be happy if I never hear the cast trill, ‘Remember, Leo,’ again and there’s a late-stage mention of Beauty and The Beast, which rankles with its implication that we might still be confused as to why Marian doesn’t go weak at the knees for Trimmingham. And the pace falters at the climax (!) when Marian and Ted are caught in the act and their coitus is suggested by the cast flapping their umbrellas and some off-stage squeaking. It’s humorous: but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be. Indeed, it’s a moment of deep tragedy, not just for Ted, but for young and old Leo in turns. Yet it seems to scoot by, unexplored and disappointingly undramatic. A abstraction too far for my tastes.
If there’s any other criticism it’s that, beside a few throwaway lines which garner laughs, the The Go-Between barely touches on the simmering passion and the painful class divide; although it does make up for it with buckets of restrained elegance and charm, which never tips over into West End smaltz.
The Go-Between contains one of the most famous opening lines in all literature, which fails to make an appearance in this adaptation. It’s not at the beginning and, just when you think you’re going to get it near the end, it gets garbled into something else. It’s weird and frustrating. So I’ll just leave it here: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
The Go-Between is on until 15th October 2016. Click here for more information.