It is with bowed heads and silly, sheepish expressions that the Whingers admitted to each other that neither had ever seen the original classic film, On The Waterfront.
Despite growing up feasting on a veritable cornucopia old black and white movies they tended to dine from the menu of great divas. Andrew’s life and tastes were shaped by Sunday afternoon TV screenings of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Lana Turner classics. Phil – some considerable years earlier – had forked out his ‘apenny to develop a palate for the likes of Theda Bara, Vilma Bánky and Marie Dressler.
So between them, somehow the grittier, more testosterone-fuelled movies such as Elia Kazan‘s eight-time Academy Award winner had passed them by. Perhaps their lives could have turned out so differently otherwise.
But on the other hand it was with few preconceptions and even less knowledge than usual that they sidled over to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to catch Steven Berkoff‘s acclaimed stage production of On the Waterfront.
Adapted from Budd Schulberg and Stan Silverman’s 1954 screenplay the story centres around dockworker and pigeon fancier Jack Duckworth Terry Malloy (Simon Merrells – sweaty but excellent), an ex-boxer who famously could’a been a contender.
The New Jersey docks are controlled by the violent and corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Berkoff) whose outfit creams money not only from the docks, but also from longshoremen who have to pay to get work at the docks. Basically the union is getting kickbacks from all sides, a bit like the theatre and concert ticketing system of today.*
Malloy’s life is pretty cushy as his brother is a close associate of Johnny Friendly but Malloy is tricked into helping bring about the death of a longshoreman who is going to testify against the mob. He becomes romantically involved with the dead man’s sister Edie (an affecting Bryony Afferson) and gradually his conscience is awakened.
The stage is all but bare (apart from a silhouette of the Statue of Liberty statue holding a docker’s hook) and there was hardly a prop to be seen all evening. There was an ominous row of wooden chairs at the back of the stage but fears that they would be banged noisily about, stacked into a pile or otherwise mis-used thankfully proved unfounded. Still, it wasn’t looking promising.
To compensate for the lack of real things on the stage, there was an awful lot of miming which would normally have had the Whingers’ hackles ascending to the flies, especially as these days no-one seems to bother very much about the quality of mime any more. For once we find ourselves tut-tutting with Mr Hytner on the parlous state of basic stage skills. But on this occasion it was all nevertheless very effective.
Anyway, it’s all highly stylized – scenes are frequently staged in a very theatrical slo-mo which surprisingly doesn’t get tiresome. Berkoff knows how to make use of the bare stage and groups the actors effectively, often creating a most chilling atmosphere. Indeed, it’s ensemble ACTING OF THE HIGHEST ORDER so there you go Mr Kenwright, you can use that on the marquee outside if you’ve room amongst the other superlatives.
The Whingers swaggered out of the theatre nodding in agreement that they’d both been thoroughly gripped. They might even postpone their intended The Court Jester (Angela Lansbury, Glynis Johns, Mildred Natwick)/Imitation of Life (Lana Turner, Sandra Dee) double-bill weekend, affect Hoboken accents, learn to spit and mime eating nachos in front of the original On the Waterfront DVD. Played in slow motion of course.
* Clearly this is not true and is simply an attempt at humour. We do not wish to have our legs broken.
The front two rows of the stalls are available on the day from 10am at the box office and cost just £10. The stage is steeply raked and the view is fine. You can almost smell the sweat. A bargain.