Graham Greene’s seminal thriller Brighton Rock is set in the criminal underworld of 1930s Brighton and follows the attempts of 17-year-old gang leader Pinkie to cover up his murder of newspaperman Charles Hale. It is not surprising, then, that the audience is anticipating something considerably darker from this adaptation by Bryony Lavery and Pilot Theatre than the sun-soaked Salford Quays outside the theatre.
Charles Hale, dispatched to Brighton to work on a newspaper competition, quickly realises he is in mortal danger. Despite his claims to be called “Fred,” Pinkie (Jacob James Beswick) quickly identifies Hale as one of the men responsible for the death of his former boss, Kite, and vows revenge.
A combination of on-stage musicians and the imposing multi-level set, which evokes the iconic iron pillars and bright lights of Brighton Pier, is used to stunning effect as Hales tries in vain to escape his mob of pursuers in the frantic and exhilarating opening scenes.
Central to proceedings is Ida Arnold (the brilliant Gloria Onitiri) who, though initially only in Brighton for a weekend of fun and frolics, becomes emotionally embroiled in the killing after “Fred” desperately seeks her protection.
Committed to exposing Pinkie’s cover-up, Ida acquires funds via a well-placed horse racing bet and begins a relentless mission to see justice served.
Pinkie, meanwhile, descends deeper and deeper into Brighton’s underbelly, crossing other mob leaders and cruelly exploiting a young waitress, Rose, who holds the power to destroy his alibi.
Other than a few comic exchanges between Ida and her hapless assistant and would-be-suitor Phil, there is little to laugh about here, but the storyline is incredibly gripping and prompts us ponder such themes as justice, religion and the fine line between youth and adulthood. The latter is more than appropriate, given that Brighton Rock forms part of The Lowry’s Week 53 Festival, the theme of which is “coming of age.”
In this respect, the performances from Jacob James Beswick and Sarah Middleton as Pinkie and Rose are true stand-outs. Pinkie is outwardly confident, violent and thuggish, but we see numerous glimpses of a young man struggling to adapt to the leadership thrust upon him. Rose is bright and intuitive, but also head over heels in love, unable to see faults in the lamentable Pinkie. The poignant closing scene, in which we see Rose about to play what she believes to be a heartfelt recorded message, is heart-breaking.
Elsewhere, the small cast rotates through a series of characters ranging from gangsters to lawyers to priests with aplomb. Angela Bain’s portrayal of the ill-fated Spicer and Marc Graham’s drunken, helpless Cubitt elicit unexpected sympathy for experienced gang members.
Despite photo booths, deckchairs and – of course – sticks of rock, this is not the carefree seaside holiday portrayed in cheeky vintage postcards, but rather a gripping thriller that pulls no punches and provides edge-of-your-seat entertainment from start to finish.