Review: From Here to Eternity, Shaftsbury Theatre ✭✭✭✭

From Here to Eternity, based on the novel by James Jones, sails its audience to the island of Hawaii and to the testosterone-fuelled barracks of December 1941, home to a relaxed but drilled troupe during the uncomfortable quiet in the weeks and months prior to the sudden attacks on Pearl Harbour. Whilst this musical adaptation by composer Stuart Brayson and lyricist Tim Rice doesn’t line up with some of Britain’s yet unrecognised musical writing talent, it has its moments; this imperfect piece has been shaped and conditioned by the contributions of an exceptionally competent and brave production team, headed up by director Tamara Harvey.

Grayson’s music is hummable and covers a cross section of genres, but the star of this writing team is Bill Oakes, responsible for the witty and risky book that makes unexpected turns and where the majority of the story is told. Rice’s lyrics are only good for a game of guess the rhyme or spot the cliché so, as the story progresses, it feels as though the songs slow the advancement of the plot. What the music and scenes lack in cohesion however, is compensated for by the large cast who cleanly execute Javier De Frutos’ military movement. The choreography cleverly communicates the soldier’s urgent desire for sexual escapism at the brothel and the sense of restriction and mayhem in the barracks (if you can forgive the tumbling being occasionally reminiscent of Annie and the orphans in A Hard Knock Life). Frutos’ choreography also compliments the simple yet sumptuous design and lighting by Soutra Gilmour and Bruno Poet who remind us of the island’s beauty before it tragically comes under fire.

Robert Lonsdale plays once welterweight Private Lee Prewitt who finds love at the Congress Club, seducing Lorene (Siubhan Harrison) despite not being able to provide the ‘respectability’ she seeks. Harrison and Lonsdale sing the roof off the Shaftesbury Theatre; their vocal performances alone are worth seeing the show for. Of the interwoven plot lines, that of the illicit relationship between First Sergeant Milt Warden (Darius Campbell) and Karen Holmes (Rebecca Thornhill) feels underwritten. However, the commanding, resonant tones of a re-made ‘Darius’ (having transformed from his former Britney-singing self) and the committed performance by Thornhill are more than sufficient to endear us to them. Ryan Sampson offers a detailed, imaginative interpretation of the best-friend role. Even when imprisoned or wounded, Private Angelo Maggio plays the fool, appealing to us with his positivity and sheer determination. Sampson’s skilful physicality also offers the audience an insight into the harrowing effects of wartime loneliness and injustice.

But, the problem with performances as excellent as this is that they often highlight the fundamental weaknesses of the material – exposing a conventional reprise as unnecessary, for example, and every so often, extinguishing the flames the cast work tirelessly to fuel. If the writers of From Here to Eternity were brave enough to break our hearts, then this musical would, more than likely, hold its place amongst other West End adaptations such as Once or Matilda.

**** (4 stars)
Booking until 26th April 2014.
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