Monday, June 27, 2016

The Go-Between. A Musical in the West End not a West-End Musical

I was lucky on Saturday to see the current West End Production of 'The Go-Between', a musical adaptation of L. P. Hartley's 1950s multi-layered masterpiece. Yes, I said a musical version. I confess to a slight trepidation at the idea of a musical as a way to adapt such a melancholy and quiet book. In fact, the musical form made for an astonishing afternoon of theatre. The entire accompaniment is from a concert-level pianist playing nearly two hours non-stop on a grand piano at the rear of the stage and he has, at his command enough musical breadth that one doesn't miss an orchestra in the pit in the slightest.

The story is, of course, an old man, recounting what should have been the 'glorious summer' when he was 12. Hartley, writing in the 1950s has the elderly Leo thinking back to his Edwardian childhood. The child of a bank manager sent to a public school, Leo is invited to spend the summer at the big country house of his old-money best friend from. Desperately trying to fit in, Leo's inexperience and vulnerability are exploited by the daughter of the house, Marian who is engaged to be married to a veteran Viscount, but has been carrying on an affair with a local tenant farmer. Leo is besotted by Marian and all she represents, and she uses this to her advantage and soon has Leo delivering messages to and from Ted, the young farmer.

In the book Leo believes in magic and he performs his boyish spells with varying results. Hartley himself was well known for his supernatural tales but save for Leo's attempts at magic The Go-Between doesn't have a supernatural element. The musical bends this around slightly and has the whole cast of the Edwardian story appear to the older Leo (Michael Crawford) as ghosts, or at least shades, urging him to 'remember' and to 'read what you wrote' in his diary of that summer. Along with the musical references to the beginning of the twentieth century and the central theme of innocence corrupted this gives the production the same kind of sinister atmosphere as Britten's 'Turn of the Screw'.

Hartley was gay and the book is sometimes cited as having homoerotic elements. I have always found this difficult to see given Leo's infatuation with Marian. However, this production shows us a young Leo who is romantically and dreamily drawn to Marian whilst at the same time beginning to realise that he may share some of the masculine sexuality represented by Ted, though he doesn't understand what that really is. Many times he begs Ted to explain. He knows that 'spooning' is a man and a woman cuddling and kissing, "but there is something more" and "you know what it is!" Ted won't tell him. Finding all Leo's questions uncomfortable Ted distracts him by teaching him how to hold and aim a shotgun; the scene is almost shocking for the way that it unifies the boy and the man, locked together, singing with passion, both with their hands on the gun. It is, of course, also a presentiment of how things are about to go horribly wrong in this affair in which Leo is embroiled.

Two songs in the musical explore the idea of Leo first as a butterfly, newly emerged, presumably from the dull and pedestrian life of a bank manager's son, and then another song explores the idea of Leo as Mercury, the messenger of the Gods. It turns out that both of these images are forms that Leo tries on, exalts in for a while, but then cannot sustain. As the older Leo says, he 'flew too close to the sun'.

The point of the book is how the events of this summer scarred Leo for life. The conceit on the stage is that the older Leo (Crawford) is reading his diary of the event and that, as at the end of the book, he will go back to find the elderly Marian and talk with her. He tells her that those events made him turn in on himself, they prevented him from being the person he was meant to be. In the most powerful scene in the show older and younger Leo confront each other and interact directly for the first time. It is powerful because who wouldn't be scared to confront their 12 year old self, who wouldn't fear that they would be angry and accuse us of making a mess of it all? Casting Crawford was something of a masterstroke, this is not mere 'big name' casting, at 74, of course the top of his range has changed and its fragility is the perfect mirror to the pure treble and the promise it contains, mirroring musically the tension of the story. The middle of Crawford's range is still as mellow and full as the pouring out of wine but his strength never overpowers, it is a beautifully calibrated performance and a humble one too, which allows the boy Leo all the room he needs for the telling of the story.

In the end how you feel about the story depends on how you react to the older Leo's very last word: "content". After a huge musical conflagration where he argues fiercely with his younger self, "You flew too close to the sun," no, says boy-Leo you ruined all the promise I had: older Leo counters, "I was proud" to have been a part of something as pure and passionate as Marian's love for Ted. It is the tragedy of the whole story that when he ends the entire show with "I am content", we do not believe him: it is the triumph of the production that amid all that subtle but powerful emotion, we know we are not supposed to.

 The Go-Between is on at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue in London

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