My Brilliant Friend (Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames)

Posted: March 20, 2017 in Theatre


How can you possibly translate a sprawling four-volume novel into a five-and-a-half hour (in two parts) stage play? The answer of course is that you can’t, but April De Angelis’ adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s massive work, My Brilliant Friend, does a superb job of conveying its essence, while suggesting to us that, if we want to fill in the detail, we should go away and read/re-read the original or wait for a television mini-series.

Telling an intimate story against the epic backdrop of turbulent times, Ferrante emulates a potent formula that has succeeded from, for example, War and Peace to Doctor Zhivago. Here, two childhood friends, Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenù (Niamh Cusack) forge a path for themselves that takes them from the slums of Naples in the 1950s through more than half a century of personal traumas, social upheaval, natural disaster and, most significantly, rising feminism. With the Mafia never far away, their friendship survives them both being in love with the same man, the fickle Nino (Toby Wharton), and they find success in very different careers, Lila in business and Lenù as a novelist. If Ferrante takes licence to paint a distorted picture of a world of strong women and worthless men, she earns it.

McCormack and Cusack are both staggeringly good, showing anguish and joy, hope and despair, and the adjective in the play’s title can certainly be applied to them. The differences between the two women are made crystal clear, yet, with great subtlety, they show how they change with time and how their bond in so strong that characteristics of one transfer to the other.  The two actors form part of a company of only twelve, the others sharing numerous lesser roles which are cast often without regard to age or appearance. Inevitably, this creates confusion, but it also has the effect of sharpening the focus on the two central characters. No one would want the actors to assume faked Italian accents, but director Melly Still’s decision to allow them to speak with a variety of strong UK regional and Irish accents seems odd and this proves to be an irritating distraction.

Behind the large thrust stage, Soutra Gilmour’s design, steeply ascending staircases, vaguely resembles the fire escapes of a Neapolitan tenement block, but, elsewhere, there is very little Italian flavour, particularly when we hear a wide selection of British and American pop hits, all of which evoke a sense of time but not of place. Still uses the space with real panache, her production including many imaginative theatrical flourishes and rarely flagging throughout its marathon.

Looking back on the central narrative, one regret is that Lila’s achievements in business do not come across strongly, leaving the impression that the character is more fragile and the friendship less well balanced than is perhaps intended. Otherwise, it is unavoidable that lesser characters and storylines are under-developed and loose ends are left untied, but the key thrust of Ferrante’s writing emerges with clarity in a production that is often thrilling, always engrossing and never dull.

Performance date: 16 March 2016

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