‘My Brilliant Friend’ review – Elena Ferrante’s novels stretch onto the stage

A curious friendship just about manages to shine through the chaos in a jolty, drawn-out adaptation – ★★★

Two-part plays are a difficult beast to master, their employment rare unless completely justifiable. When done well, several hours spent in the confines of a squeaky London theatre are enjoyable and hardly an issue as an epic production unfolds (look no further than reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Inheritance). It is therefore unfortunate that the National’s latest foray into two-parters with the Rose Theatre Kingston – April De Angelis’ adaption of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels – fails to follow suit.

Niamh Cusack (Macbeth) and Catherine McCormack (All My Sons) star in the leading roles as Lenu and Lila, two lifelong friends who maintain a close bond no matter what life in Italy throws at them. Their evolving relationship is the main constant across the whole play while Soutra Gilmour’s staircase set revolves around their lives in countless scene changes. Although the second part is a lot tighter, most of the transitions follow a similar progression: dialogue, a possible altercation, then loud music or a dance number to conclude. Aside from being repetitive, some of the play’s more impactful moments – of which there are many – lose some of their punch when we are shortly introduced to yet another setting.

In amongst all the physical changes, the chemistry of McCormack and Cusack is clear. As characters, they quote each other and bounce off each other’s differences. McCormack as Lila is icy and daring, while Cusack’s Lenu is good-natured and considerate. When Lila leads their friendship in the beginning, the first half of the play is very much McCormack’s stand-out part. It’s in direct contrast to the second half, when we see Cusack’s character, personality and feelings up close. As individuals and as a collective, the pair’s performances are gripping and formidable.

Yet their friendship and chemistry alone isn’t enough to hold on to during this dizzying production, and I wonder whether the adaptation knows that, to an extent. With the exception of some inventive props and puppetry, a lot of the physical theatre and choreography feels grandiose, bizarre and exaggerative – an over-reliance on slow-motion coming across more as gimmicky than cinematic.

As such, I question whether a different structural approach would serve Ferrante’s work better, especially considering that the play is an odd consolidation of four novels. I think of recent productions like Peter Gynt and Small Island and suspect their productions, with two intervals, would create the perfect ‘beginning, middle and end’ for this lengthy story.

With an intriguing companionship at its heart, there’s no denying that My Brilliant Friend has theatrical potential, but after five hours of cacophony its poignant intimacy wears tragically thin.

My Brilliant Friend is now playing at the Olivier Theatre until 22 February 2020.

Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch My Brilliant Friend for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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