'The Go-Between': Theater Review

Johan Persson
Sparse but surprisingly effective.

London stage doyen Michael Crawford returns to the West End with a nearly sung-through musical adaptation of L. P. Hartley's classic novel.

The past may be a foreign country, to quote the famous opening line of L. P. Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, but it's clearly one from which the U.K. can’t "brexit," judging by the number of British art works that unfold in bygone eras. While this musical adaptation of the book, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and other venues in 2011, looks back to the much-fetishized Edwardian fin de siècle with its boaters and bustles, it’s not a sentimental journey. Instead, it's something thoughtful and refreshingly intimate compared to most music-based West End shows.

Directed by Roger Haines, the fluid, stripped-down production stars London theater legend Michael Crawford (The Phantom of the Opera). In fine fettle vocally, Crawford plays Leo, an elderly man literally looking back over the life-changing events from the year he turned 13 in 1900, a summer he played postman in Norfolk for a pair of illicit lovers.

The quasi-operatic collaboration by Richard Taylor (music and lyrics) and David Wood (book and lyrics) — there are spoken lines, but the majority of the musical is sung-through — doesn’t necessarily yield show-stopping tunes or theatrical pyrotechnics. But it's a consistently absorbing, sometimes even compelling work, paradoxically both modern in the austerity of its staging and retrospective in every other sense.

While the novel was well-received when it was published in 1953, it’s probably still less widely known than its most famous screen adaptation, the 1971 film which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. That version, directed by Joseph Losey (resident in Blighty because of blacklisting) and scripted by up-and-coming playwright Harold Pinter, remains iconic, thanks particularly to the casting of Julie Christie as posh totty Marian Maudley and Alan Bates as her bit-of-rough lover Ted Burgess; they exchange their billets doux via Dominic Guard’s young version of Leo.

The BBC churned out a dutiful yet uninspiring made-for-TV feature in 2015, starring Jim Broadbent as the older version of Leo, Lesley Manville as Marian’s prissy mother and Vanessa Redgrave as elderly Marian for the final coda (a cute bit of casting given that her father Michael played the older Leo in Losey’s film).

While big-name actors have played the older version of Leo in the past, other productions haven’t made the character’s presence so central to the story as this show does. Crawford is clearly the main box-office draw. However, it’s hard not to worry that the producers might be pushing the 74-year-old a little hard by keeping him onstage for nearly the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time, albeit often off to the side, silently watching and reacting to the other actors like a spectral presence. The visible trembling in his hands makes him seem all the more fragile, and adds to the sense of how broken Leo was by what happened that summer.

If Crawford’s voice is arguably not as powerful as in his heyday (whose is at that age?), his acting ability appears undiminished. He even shed tears on demand during the performance caught for this review.

Perhaps what's really impressive about this production is that it doesn’t play at all like a showcase for Crawford. At times, it’s possible even to forget he's there. Gemma Sutton's Marian is especially charismatic, blonde and angelic at first, clad in shades of cream like everyone else. Her butter-wouldn’t-melt resting bitch face makes the sudden strident attack on Leo in the second half, when he balks at doing her bidding, all the more shocking.

Stephen Carlile, meanwhile, similarly balances his interpretation of the aristocratic Trimingham, the man Marian’s mother (Issy Van Randwyck) wants her to marry, just on the cusp between genial and menacing, symbolized in a face half covered in scars earned in the Boer War.

Wood’s book filets the story down to bare essentials, and a similar minimalism pervades the production. The set is sparse, made up of flats painted to look like old tarnished mirrors and tufts of marsh grass. When Marian and young Leo (touchingly performed by William Thompson at the performance reviewed) go to buy him a summer suit, the shop is conjured by the ensemble holding up hangers for make-believe clothes. Likewise, the ceaselessly restless score is generated solely by the cast’s voices, often in complex harmonies, and a piano played onstage by musical director Nigel Lilley. The simplicity serves to enhance what’s often a thematically rich and subtle work.

Venue: Apollo Theatre, London 
Cast: Michael Crawford, Gemma Sutton, Stuart Ward, Issy van Randwyck, Stephen Carlile, Julian Forsyth, John Addison, Jenni Bowden, Silas Wyatt-Barke, Johnny Evans Hutchinson, Luka Green, William Thompson, Samuel Menhinick, Matty Norgen, Archie Stevens
Music: Richard Taylor
Lyrics: Richard Taylor, David Wood
Book: David Wood, based on the novel by L.P. Hartley
Director: Roger Haines
Set & costume designer: Michael Pavelka
Lighting designer: Tim Lutkin
Sound design: Matt McKenzie for Autograph
Musical director: Nigel Lilley

A Greene Light Stage and Bill Kenwright presentation