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On the Waterfront

Budd Schulberg with Stan Silverman
Nottingham Playhouse
(2008)

It's taken 54 years for the first British staging of On the Waterfront. The film scooped eight Academy Awards, including best actor for Marlon Brando, and the American Film Institute rated it the eighth greatest American film of all time. So some people might be asking: why turn it into a stage play now?

Original screenwriter Budd Schulberg worked with collaborator Stan Silverman on the adaptation which Steven Berkoff directs. Add an astounding set by surrealist artist Patrick Hughes to a 12-strong, engrossed ensemble cast and many people will be asking: why has it taken so long to put it on a stage?

It's the first time that Berkoff, who appeared at Nottingham Playhouse in its early years and has had his work produced there, has directed at the theatre. No one who sees On the Waterfront will forget it.

Berkoff's trademark physical theatre is evident throughout, with slow-motion acting used at certain times to increase the intimidation, tension and fear as the mob running the port of New York brutally try to prevent their corrupt schemes being uncovered.

Patrick Hughes' design is breathtaking, his "reverspective" of the New York skyline being so simple yet amazingly effective.

The cast are superb: most play several roles, bringing to life the waterfront where the men are "the bottom of the chain" as they desperately try to get a job unloading a ship; the bars where it's also evident that the mob are in control; and the church where the oppressed workers tell the priest their motto is "keep quiet - you'll live longer".

On the Waterfront is the tale of boxer Terry Malloy who's won twelve straight fights and "coulda been a contender" if it hadn't been for the mob telling him to take a dive in his biggest fight. He's tricked into luring a quayside activist, Joey Doyle, to his death. Joey's sister Edie implores both Terry and Father Pete Barry to take a stand against the corrupt union bosses. But if they do blood will inevitably be spilled.

Simon Merrells does a wonderful job as Terry, the multi-layered character who "coulda been something instead of a bum". He develops from a laidback guy taking easy shifts on the dock into an animal intent on revenge when his conscience is aroused by his new love Edie. He's full of anguish for not realising he was "ratting" on himself by taking the easy way out and he's unbelievably realistic during the scene in which he's beaten up for taking a stance against the gangsters.

Coral Beed gives a marvellous interpretation of Edie, single-minded in her quest to find out what happened to her brother and determined that right will prevail.

Vincenzo Nicoli as Father Barry grows in stature as the play develops. He comes into his own after the death of another docker, Runty Nolan, when the priest declares that the waterfront has become his church and with God's help the men have the power to overthrow the mob.

Sam Douglas is commendable as the frightening dock boss Johnny Friendly while all the cast do their bit to invoke some very moving scenes. The fear and helplessness after Joey Doyle's death; Joey's funeral; the beating with baseball bats of two dockers who went against the mob; and Terry's refusal to accept a job from his brother who's on the payroll of the corrupt bosses are the most poignant.

But probably the most memorable was a scene in Terry's pigeon loft in which seven actors cooed, moved their heads and got into a flap just like real pigeons.

I thought only on one occasion that the slow-motion effects were being overdone. Otherwise I was gripped by the whole production.

Nottingham Playhouse's last major opus War and Peace is now playing at the Hampstead Theatre. On the Waterfront deserves not just a transfer to London but to the West End. It lives up to the Playhouse's hopes that it'll be one of the theatrical events of the year.

"On the Waterfront" runs until Saturday, May 3rd

Kevin Quarmby reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in 2009

Reviewer: Steve Orme