The Go-Between. West Yorkshire Playhouse, Derby Live and Royal & Derngate Northampton. 22-09-11

Sophie Bould and Edward Cook. Photo by Robert Day.

L P Hartley’s The Go-Between is a much loved book with a very particular tone. It is a haunting and bittersweet story shot through with remembered pain and a longing for lost innocence alongside beautiful memories of a long ago Edwardian summer. The first and most difficult task of any stage adaptation is to transfer this atmosphere onto the stage and David Wood and Richard Taylor’s new musical drama succeeds triumphantly in this. They clearly both love and understand the book. It is achingly beautiful and cleverly and inventively directed by Roger Haines. Technically he has expected a lot of his cast, there is a wealth of choreographed movement within the staging which needs to run like clockwork alongside some deeply felt characterisation, and they don’t let him down. It is very much a company piece in which the look and feel of the whole transcends any individual performance but the characters still have to live and breathe, feel and suffer, and without exception they do. The score is reminiscent of some of Stephen Sondheim’s work in that the music is a constant presence, there to underpin emotion and action and allow feelings to take flight. You could have heard a pin drop from beginning to end as the mostly older matinee audience who I was with watched in rapt silence. I doubt that there was anyone there who wasn’t at some point mourning their own lost youth and innocence. It is our earliest betrayals which hurt the most. The moment where Marian begs Leo not to grow and change is heartbreaking as this is a process which she herself has set in motion and it is a fate that none of us can avoid. We all have to face the reality of a world that can be cruel and dark. None of us can remain in that seemingly endless summer of our childhood.

John Cairns, James Staddon and Jake Abbott. Photo by Robert Day.

The key decision in the structuring of the piece was the decision to allow Leo’s much older self to be there as a constant presence watching and commenting on the action and communicating with the characters. We are seeing the story as it is replayed inside his own head while he tries to understand and let go of something which has haunted him for the whole of his life. It is very moving to see him there as he watches and listens, the damaged husk of the eager vibrant boy that he once was. James Staddon does a fine job. It is a very fine, fast, tight adaptation of the novel in which nothing is wasted and nothing is overdone. Every bit of David Wood’s experience in his long career as a dramatist shows.

The quality of the direction shows itself particularly in the performances of the boys playing Leo and Marcus (Jake Abbott and John Cairns at the performance I saw). They are perfectly comfortable with everything that is asked of them in a complex production and they understand their characters perfectly, staying focussed and real without ever trying to “act” too much. I was very impressed with Jake Abbott’s Leo. He is able to show the discomfort of a small boy who doesn’t quite fit in, flattered by the attention that he is getting and able to patronise Marian’s lover Ted while knowing that he is very much there on charity among the people of the big house. His anger towards his older self at the end as he rails at Colston is believable and touching.

Sophie Bould. Photo by Robert Day.

The lovers Marian and Ted are played with great honesty and truth by Sophie Bould and Stuart Ward. Hartley disapproved of them and was surprised when his readers often found them sympathetic. They should have been together. It is hard for us now to appreciate the strength of the social forces which kept them apart. They are good people at heart whose tragedy is not of their own making.

The set and costumes by Micheal Pavelka are in the muted grey and brown tones of memory, like a faded postcard from a lost Edwardian summer and the production is beautifully lit, using silhouette and shadow to great advantage.

After its run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse the production has a short tour to the other co-producing theatres in Derby and Northampton. If you love The Go- Between then go and see it.  I promise you you will not see a better stage adaptation. Were there any justice in the world it would then get the West End run which it richly deserves but perhaps it is just too delicate and beautiful a flower to last that long.

The most beautiful of the songs is used in this trailer.


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