My Brilliant Friend

The challenge in attempting to adapt Elena Ferrante's 10 million-selling quadrilogy, The Neapolitan Novels lies not in finding the time to read through the 1,600 pages of source (about 2 and a bit Harry Potters), but in deciding which of the multitude of mini-melodramas deserve focus and which can be glossed over to make a digestible and impactful staging. Ferrante seemingly thinks that a page without high drama is an unnecessary tree death and has thrown in everything except an alien abduction (Book 5 perhaps?) to try and break the 70-year friendship of her cliché-drawn protagonists, Lenu and Lila – as similar to the Tellytubbbies in emotional roundedness as they are in name.

With little thought given to style over content, it's tonally all over the place.

Unfortunately for us, it seems that April De Angelis couldn't decide. To be fair, how can you judge the impact something would have on the sort of baseless friendship common to trash fiction, which we are told to believe rather than shown any foundational evidence. The result is a rickety rollercoaster ride of drama-heavy, empathy-light nonsense that wastes everybody's but the most ardent of fan's time.

Admittedly, I've not read any of the books but my betting is that if I were to replace every page with a single emoji to summarise the dramatic point contained, and then thumbed through the 1,600 pages like an old-style flick book, it would take less time, have more believability and at least equal the emotional impact of this 2 play, 5 hour sprawling mess.

There's no emotional stone not thrown at the girls/women/wives/mothers – though their friendship remains throughout, mainly because that was the author's conceit when she began writing and she's going to bloody well stick with it. The friendship may be more grounded in the books, but here there is no time for them to develop any kind of relationship as they're far too busy negotiating their way through poverty, abuse (sexual and physical), rape, murder, adultery, organised crime, working-class oppression, sexuality, more rape, more murder…and all before we're able to take a breath and have an ice-cream in the first interval.

Before any of the book's fans points out that the murder of the Mafioso cross-dressing homosexual by the Mafioso brother of another Mafioso who used to fuck the first Mafioso when he wore one of Lila's dresses, doesn't happen till the fourth act… the point remains. It's reminiscent of the "never mind the depth, here's another explosion" tone of the old Telenovelas; those daytime soap operas with the ridiculous storylines you'd stumble across when holidaying in Spain or Greece in the nineties. Plots as flimsy as toilet paper, but watch more than one episode, and the addiction is like heroin.

Which likely explains the books' popularity. Set against the backdrop of the poor but community-spirited Napoli, where the sun's heat and the political corruption are equal oppressors, and the simmering rebellion doesn't just ooze sex, it creates huge fat globules of sweat that dollop from the mopped brow to the floor. To add worthiness, there is the idea that the narrative shows the strength of women battling – in different ways – against male oppression. Not dissimilar to how several decades ago, Jackie Collins claimed the success of her bonkbusters (selling 15 million – popularity is not a kitemark of quality) was due to her portrayal of strong, adversity-facing women, fighting through a man's world. The feminism badge being proudly worn by every reader, as they hurriedly fingered through to the fellatio on pages 24-28.

For those who have read and loved the series, the adaptation will be as enjoyable as flicking through an old photo album from a long-ago birthday, bullet pointing shared memories. Indeed most of the snippets of overheard interval conversation concerns whose read what bit, what happens next, and if the Mafioso men are as brooding as they should be. For those who haven't read any, it's as entertaining as when said photographs are of an occasion you weren't at, of which you have no interest. When the memories continue to be explained for a relentless 5 long hours. 5 hours that could be much longer if there was ever a pause for breath. Some mercies.

The breakneck speed is aided by the use of 4 huge staircases to represent "every-set", wheeled around to be magically transformed from a set of 4 huge staircases to become a set of 4 huge staircases in different positions. Whilst a video backdrop seems to show anything they could find a cinefilm on that had some sort of link to something happening onstage, regardless of style but to fill the space.

With little thought given to style over content, it's tonally all over the place. One minute we're supposed to be moved by the panic of a mother losing her child, the next the death of a woman is done with the double-take mugging of a Pantomime Dame. By the end of the second play, though the themes get darker, it's degenerated into pastiche, with a couple of characters starting to make impressions of Julie Walters' Mrs Overall. Perhaps the actors are just exhausted. As an audience member, I can empathise.

The crime of this 'throw enough mud at the wall and some will stick' approach is that it wastes the clearly talented Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack in the lead roles. With "opposites attract" the only definer of the friendship to go on, Cusack keeps the prettier, more meek, clever and straightlaced Lenu a consistently irritating, squeaky-voiced, highly slappable precocious child-self no matter what age she is. Whilst at the other side of the mirror, McCormack's Lila does broody, sexy, brave, smart and rebellious, and is tiringly cynical, as though aged 50 from the moment we meet her. It's not difficult to see why anyone would want to murder either. In a production where, for a big theme, being included is satisfactory and being examined superfluous, they too remain lost in this maelstrom of big ideas that are all too small to touch the Olivier's sides.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

Lyttelton Theatre

The Seven Streams of the River Ota

★★★★★
National Theatre Olivier

The Visit

★★★
National Theatre - Olivier

My Brilliant Friend

★★
Lyttleton Theatre

Hansard

★★★
Olivier Theatre

Peter Gynt

The Lyttelton Theatre

Rutherford and Son

★★★

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The Blurb

Based on the celebrated novels by Elena Ferrante – published in over 50 countries – My Brilliant Friend is an epic story of love, violence, ambition and self-destruction.

When the most important person in her life goes missing without a trace, Lenu Greco, now a celebrated author, begins to recall a relationship of more than 60 years.

First meeting on the dangerous streets of post-war Naples, friends Lila and Lenu experience turbulent social and political change, from the rise of the Camorra to the sexual revolution and the transformation of their neighbourhood, city and nation. Even as life repeatedly tries to pull them in separate directions, they remain inextricably bound to one another.

Following a sold-out run at Rose Theatre Kingston, the acclaimed two-part adaptation by April De Angelis (Jumpy) is reworked for the Olivier stage by Melly Still (Coram Boy). Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack return to play Lenu and Lila.

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