On The Waterfront @ Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

cast list
Steven Berkoff, Simon Merrells, Vincenzo Nicoli, Coral Beed, Antony Byrne, Alexander Thomas, Ian Gofton, Sean Buckley, Alex McSweeny, Dominic Grant, Alex Giannini, Gavin Marshall

directed by
Steven Berkoff
Elia Kazan’s Oscar winning On The Waterfront contains one of the most iconic scenes in screen history and one of the most quoted lines of dialogue ever committed to celluloid in Marlon Brando’s poignant, frustrated “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”

In choosing to bring the film to the stage, Steven Berkoff is faced with the dilemma of whether to simply provide a retread through these familiar scenes or to tinker with something that is considered a cinematic classic.

He’s found an interesting middle ground, one that leaves Budd Schulberg’s script pretty much unmessed with save for a few added expletives, yet one that feels wholly theatrical, indebted to the movies only when it chooses to be.
In his programme notes, Berkoff describes how his intention was to hone in on the elements of Greek tragedy in the script and the production brings out those parallels, using the Irish American longshoremen and the gangsters as a chorus of sorts.

As well as directing, Berkoff also stars as the rotund yet menacing mob boss Johnny Friendly. Simon Merrels takes the Brando role of Terry Malloy, a former boxer who took a fall; his glory days are behind him and at the age of 35 he’s still dismissively referred to as ‘kid.’ He’s seen as something of a pet, an errand boy, tolerated because his brother, Charlie ‘The Gent’ Malloy, is tight with Johnny Friendly.

Having unwittingly played a part in helping New Jersey longshoreman Joey Doyle become a pavement pancake at the hands of Friendly’s crew, Terry finds himself being pulled at on all sides, both by Joey’s sister, Edie (Coral Beed), who suddenly awakens the stirrings of a conscience within him, and by the priest, Father Barry (Vincenzo Nicoli), who wants him to stop playing ‘D & D’ (deaf and dumb) and testify against Johnny.

Merrels doesn’t have the intensity of Brando, but then you don’t fully expect him to. His Terry is a less tortured take on the role, less layered; he plays it more as an ordinary not so smart guy who is trapped in a corner and forced to take a stand. Apart from Berkoff’s unpredictable Johnny and Antony Byrne’s conflicted Charlie, there aren’t that may stand-out performances; where the cast excel is as a tight ensemble.

Eschewing the realism of the film, the set is bare save for the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty jutting jaggedly across the back of the stage a visual echo of another iconic image of American cinema, the closing moments of Planet of the Apes and, with the exception of a few chairs and some nasty looking hooks that double as tools and weapons, there are no props. The actors often use mime and many scenes are carried out in slow motion, a device that Berkoff has employed before.

These somewhat stylised sequences initially seem at odds with the naturalistic material, a little too mannered in execution perhaps, but this concern doesn’t last and they soon fuse surprisingly well with the story; in fact the uncluttered nature of the staging pushes the narrative to the fore. It also allows for some inspired moments, particularly the pigeon coop scene where Terry takes Edie up on the roof and all these craggy-faced actors suddenly start to twitch and coo like birds. In another sequence, the slo-mo attack, following the meeting during which Father Barry tries to convince the dockers to talk to the law, sees the men rippling from one side of the stage to the other like the balls on a 1980s executive desk toy.

The sound design is also inventive, blending smooth period music with aggressive, jarring percussion which is performed live by the composer Mark Glentworth, a regular collaborator with Berkoff. The music helps layer on the tension, which at times is considerable, especially when Charlie, having done right by his kid brother, goes to meet his fate.

Berkoff has managed to escape many of the pitfalls of bringing such a well known film to the stage. You leave determined to revisit the film on DVD, but also having enjoyed the staging in its own right, as a separate, satisfying experience.

This production, which originated at Nottingham Playhouse and also played at last year’s Edinburgh festival before making it to London, has found a West End home in the Theatre Royal Haymarket, a venue that (having played host to both Treasure Island and Girl With a Pearl Earring) has felt a bit jinxed of late. This tense and gripping staging looks like going some way to overturning that curse.

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