The Go-Between has taken its time to come to the West End but the wait has been worth it. It first appeared in regional centres in 2011, a highly lauded production which, on the whole, boasted a stronger cast. This is a case where superstar casting does not necessarily enhance the experience of a musical which abounds with lavish melancholic music, and is delicate and quintessentially English.
The tale of the young lad who takes surreptitious correspondence from the beautiful, but engaged, young woman he has a schoolboy crush on, to the manly, low-born labourer, who acts as a kind of surrogate older brother/father to him, is one of the fondest stories in English literature.
L.P. Hartley’s novel is well known and well loved, and formed the basis for a successful 1971 film that starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Michael Redgrave; Michael Legrand provided a luscious soundtrack for the film which included I Still See You among its treasures.
Now playing at the Apollo Theatre is an adaptation of Hartley’s book of a quite different kind. With a score by Richard Taylor, a book by David Wood and lyrics written jointly by both men, The Go-Between is the perfect musical tonic for those suffering withdrawal following the cessation of Downton Abbey. It vividly brings to life a lost era.
Directed with flair and considerable understated restraint by Roger Haines, The Go-Between is a gorgeous musical. It is not like any musical currently playing in the West End: it doesn’t feature well known tunes or, with one or two exceptions, even especially memorable ones (at least on first hearing).
But the music is an integral part of proceedings and makes the whole experience captivating. It casts light into the darker aspects of the tale, recreates profoundly the sense of the turn of the Century world and its class emnities, and embraces passion, furtiveness and entrenched unforgiveness.
Taylor and Wood have written something profoundly English, profoundly beautiful. If pressed, one might choose A Little Night Music or The Light In The Piazza as sort-of reference points for the kind of musical The Go-Between is, but those choices are more about style than substance or execution. They share with The Go Between an intense focus on love that seems impossible and the power of memory and shared histories.
Rather like Titanic, which held its press night the day before this one, The Go-Between boasts an ensemble that can really sing well, gloriously even, and superb musical direction from Nigel Lilley who plays a grand piano to accompany the performance. The bold simplicity of the musical support reaps real dividends, immediately setting the piece aside from every other musical playing in town.
Because the narrative device involves an older man recalling the circumstances of one significant summer some fifty years earlier, the single piano greatly assists with the sense of solitary expression; memories tinkle, swell and overcome as keys are played.
Michael Pavelka plays with the notion of the memory play in the set design. There is both a topsy-truly quality to it – green foliage is scattered among expensive, but now decayed, furniture – and a sense of real lives lived in real places.
A huge luggage trunk dominates the set, being the key source of the reminder of the past and taking its own role in the past-that-was-once-the-present and is so again, in the memories of the old man. A forest and lake/stream is off-stage. There is a perfect union of home and county.
Pavelka’s costumes are primarily off-White linen and cotton, with autumnal colours to break up the sepia effect. It is not often that costumes aid in evoking the underlying pulse of a musical, but that is certainly the case here.
Tim Lutkin uses light very effectively, creating perfect country afternoons of lazy, hazy bliss, as well as darkening swathes of distrust and deceit when things start to go off-piste for the inquisitive messenger. At times, the combination of the look and feel of the staging with the haunting, affecting music is so beautiful it hurts.
The titular character, Leo Colston, is played by two actors at different stages of his life. The younger Leo (an extremely impressive William Thompson) is spending time with the rich family of his friend, Marcus Maudsley. He is smitten by Marcus’s sister, Marion, who is engaged to Trimimgham, a quiet, noble man, badly disfigured in the war.
Marion prevails upon young Leo to take messages for her to Ted Burgess, a virile and unattached worker who lives nearby. At first, Leo is innocent to the assignations he is party to arranging, but as summer rolls on, he comes to realise what is really happening.
On a climactic night, Leo’s birthday, events come to a head. Mrs Maudsley discovers the affair, Marion is humiliated and Burgess commits suicide. Leo is left shattered by the events and returns home, to bury his memories.
But 50 years later, he receives a letter from Marion and retrieves a long packed away diary from a trunk in his attic, and, as he turns the pages, his old, tired self remembers the events vividly, retracing his inevitable steps to disaster. Eventually, he meets with Marion, who married Trimimgham after the scandal subsided and how seeks closure of her own.
Its a sorrowful tale of love lost, love unwanted and love accepted – with Leo as the central moving force, both for the giddy highs and the desperate, awful lows.
Stuart Ward is in exceptional voice as Burgess and he brings a raw, muscular masculinity to the character; there is no difficulty understanding Marion’s attraction. He plays the outsider splendidly, and his scenes with Thompson are soft and paternal, which makes his one moment of surprise cold wrath all the more effective. Ward is outstanding.
So too is Thompson, who must negotiate a myriad of conflicting emotions and allegiances and convey the overall impression of growing up – fast. He has an easy rapport with Samuel Menhinick’s quirky Marcus, who is shown to be the product of a certain kind of intense and expectation filled breeding.
Stephen Carlile is a model of restraint and propriety as Trimingham. This is a man who knows how lucky he is and is genial and kind to everyone, as loyal as might ever be thought possible. Julian Forsyth, so recently such an impressive Cecil B Demille in Sunset Boulevard, is exacting and forthright as Mr Maudsley. All of these performers have rich, rewarding voices and give the music strength and robust life.
Less successful is Issy Van Randwyck who makes Mrs Maudsley one of her stock characterisations. The shrill almost fishwife moment when she turns on young Leo is intensely jarring, and her singing is not as strong as the score requires. Silas Wyatt-Barke makes nothing of the role of Denys; indeed, the character could have been excised entirely without a ripple being felt.
In the original incarnation of The Go-Between, however, these roles were played by more gifted players, who made the music shimmer as it ought, and who brought texture, nuance and detail to the scenes involving, especially, the younger Leo. Why they were replaced for this production is a mystery.
Gemma Sutton, playing Marion for the first time, brings a truly delightful and richly toned voice to the part; her acting is of the highest standard, as she flirts, cajoles, seduces and spits and snarls depending on whether Marion is getting her way. It’s a clever portrait of a spoilt, entitled woman determined to have every cake and gorge on them all too. Her final moments, frail and regretful, are beautifully measured.
James Staddon originated the role of the older Leo and, for my money, provided a characterisation and voice that was crisp, strong and understandably distant from the memories of his younger self’s activities. Michael Crawford provides a very different, reflective, aged Leo.
It is, of course, exactly the performance you expect from Crawford in such a role. He makes the show entirely about him and, although the character is onstage almost all the time, The Go-Between is not really about older Leo – it’s about his memories of his younger self, the changes that were wrought on him that summer and the bruises he carries permanently.
There are shades of the Phantom, Frank Spencer and even the Wizard Of Oz in Crawford’s performance, and he goes out of his way to suggest the world weary load he carries. A straighter, more unadorned performance, simple and full of regretful clarity would have served the overall effect of the musical far better. Old Leo is not a thing of tricks and patches; he is real, direct and broken.
Still, the audience went wild for Crawford, leaping to their feet to applaud the great man’s return to the stage for the first time in about five years. And he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, bad in the role; he plays Old Leo, as only he could or would. He has no trouble holding the audience in rapt attention and his voice copes very well with the considerable demands of the score.
But it is unquestionable that a star turn was not necessary here. Crawford is a good, perhaps even great, older Leo; but the show demands an outstanding one with a soaring, powerful voice that can unlock the power and the glory of the score. As Staddon did in 2011.
The Go-Between is not a musical likely to appeal to everyone, but it is certainly a musical that should be seen and heard by everyone. If you give yourself to its infectious musical thrills, it will be in your memory forever. If you are a fan of Michael Crawford you will love it.