Theatre Review: From Here to Eternity - Shaftesbury Theatre ✭✭✭

From Here to Eternity
Shaftesbury Theatre

Review by Emma Curry

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the way to the Shaftesbury Theatre’s new musical version of From Here to Eternity. The show is based on James Jones’s 1951 novel, which was subsequently adapted into two TV shows and a film (starring Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra), but I’m afraid to say I hadn’t seen (or, in the case of the novel, read) any of them, so was going in completely unaware of what the story had to hold.

The aesthetic of this slickly-produced show is so strong, however, that by the end of the first number, stragglers like me were rapidly brought up to speed. The show is set during the Second World War on a military base in Hawaii, home to the rather arbitrarily-named ‘G Company’, and opens with the arrival of their newest recruit: Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Robert Lonsdale). Prewitt is a boxer who refuses to fight and a bugler who refuses to play, and is keen to keep a low profile during his time in the regiment. In these violently-charged, hyper-masculine surroundings, however, it seems unlikely that this inclination will last for long. As the story progresses, Prewitt discovers the impossibility of maintaining his stoical isolation, as he makes an unlikely friend in chatty, ill-treated Italian-American Private Maggio (Ryan Sampson),and develops feelings for the determined Lorene (Siubhan Harrison), a prostitute who dreams of a better future. Running parallel to this narrative is the love story of First Sergeant Milt Warden (Darius Campbell, of Pop Idol fame) and Karen Holmes (Rebecca Thornhill), the mistreated wife of the regiment’s Captain. Over everything, however, hangs a general air of foreboding, as the audience watches both couples eagerly planning a future together: for this is 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has not yet taken place.

One of the real strengths of this show is the set, which brilliantly evokes the soon-to-be-disturbed tropical paradise of the story’s location. The back half of the stage rises up to become sandy dunes and a picture-postcard background creates rippled waves for the famous beach love scene between Milt and Karen, whilst a wealth of neatly-placed beds and kit boxes convey the cramped regularity of the army’s barracks. When the bombing finally comes at the end of the show, the offstage explosions and animated planes swooping towards the audience from the backdrop were also genuinely frightening, and brilliantly conveyed the horror and unexpectedness of the aerial assault.

The songs, with lyrics by musical-stalwart Tim Rice, were also brilliant at evoking this sense of place, with the muscular, macho posturing of the barracks numbers set alongside the more tender-hearted duets between the lovers, and there was an excellent mixture of musical styles, from rock-and-roll to country to blues. However, there were so many songs that I found it difficult to hold onto any of them: there wasn’t time to take in and reflect on the lyrics before the next number had begun and driven the previous one from your mind. This sense of overcrowding and relentlessness felt its way into the choreography as well: each piece was intricately-staged and meticulously-performed, but I just didn’t have the time to admire any of it. This quick-fire style also meant the tone of the show leapt around wildly: Private Maggio’s powerful and affecting solo number ‘I Love the Army’ was rapidly followed by Warden and Prewitt’s slightly drunken, more light-hearted boogie-woogie number ‘Ain’t Where I Wanna Be Blues’.

This constant jumping-around of tone and scope thus meant that, at times, I struggled to really engage with any of the characters in this show. I found myself not really believing in either of the love stories, and thus found the endings of both rather cool and abrupt. The exception to this dispiritedness, however, was the narrative of Maggio. I have enjoyed watching Ryan Sampson quietly steal the show in almost everything he has appeared in over the years, from Doctor Who to Dates, and he is absolutely fantastic in this production: he brings both swagger and sadness to Maggio, as his vivacity is gradually beaten out of him by his brutal superiors. Kudos to whoever did Sampson’s makeup when he came out of the dreaded punishment ‘Hole’ too: his bleeding, beaten, deathly-white face was really distressing, and brilliantly conveyed the departure of his previously light-hearted persona.

All in all, I’m rather uncertain how I feel about this show. As stated before, it was incredibly slickly-produced and the songs and choreography particularly well-performed. However, the sheer wealth of all this staging was at times too much: I personally wanted a less crowded and more emotionally-engaging narrative, with more space to dwell on the nuances of these relationships, constricted by wartime. Nevertheless, if you’re a musical fan, I’d head in to witness some standout solo performances, and to dwell on the joys of what is, undoubtedly, a superbly-coordinated company. Or, if you’ve been wondering what Darius has been up to since his Pop Idol days…

Three stars ✭✭✭


Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8DP
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