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Muddy reviews: My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre

Have you read Elena Ferrante’s novels? Oh but you must.

The Italian writer, who keeps her identity a mystery, is the author of several brilliant novels, all vivid and austerely honest accounts of the lives, relationships and inner conflicts of intelligent women. Her writing is intimate, immersive and intense. Last year the writer was named one of the 100 most influential people on the planet by Time magazine, and her most recent work – four novels that make up the Neapolitan series – has just been adapted for the stage by April de Angelis into two shows of two-and-half-hours.

It’s showing at the Rose Theatre, Kingston and my good friend and long-time Fleet Street journalist John Clarke (The Independent, The Times, the i paper – check out the iQuiz) was there to review it on Saturday. Over to you John…

This adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels isn’t just a play, it’s a theatrical marathon lasting more than five hours. Playgoers can choose to see the two parts separately or experience the whole shebang in one exhilarating if slightly posterior-numbing go.

The opening plunges us straight into the backstreets of post-war Naples with Soutra Gilmour’s stunning three-storey concrete-jungle set of fire-escape ladders, rusting metal rollers blinds and furnace-like doors acting as the backdrop throughout.

After a short contemporary introduction, we meet the two main characters – Catherine McCormack as the wayward but fiercely intelligent Lila and Niamh Cusack as the studious and more straightforward Elena – as children playing with the dolls that become one of the play’s leitmotifs.

It’s obvious from the start that this isn’t a simple and uncomplicated rendering of the books. Lila and Elena grow from young children to senior citizens without any theatrical signs of youth or ageing or, in Elena’s case, even a change of clothes. A cast of 12 then share all the other more than 30 roles between them in a dizzying and if at times, slightly confusing, parade of family, friends and enemies.

The gifted but wayward Lila, who teaches herself to read and then masters Latin, is forced out of school by her oppressive father, her attitude and experiences forged on a lifelong belief that life isn’t a fairytale… “One doesn’t do what one wants, one does what one can.” Elena, the model student stays at school and then goes on to university and a life of writing and journalism.

How their two lives continue to intertwine, Lila’s in the brutal Naples underworld controlled by the violent Solara family  and Elena’s in the more rarified realms of academia with the professor husband she betrays, make for an absorbing and engrossing narrative.

Contemporary events including the urban terrorism of groups such as the Red Brigade in the Seventies intrude, while the shattering southern Italian earthquake of 1980 provides a set-piece that mirrors – as the cast are flung across stage and windows are blown-in – the disintegration of Lila’s fragile mind as much as the wholesale destruction elsewhere.  

Photo credits: Marc Brenner

But the link between the two women endures and indeed grows stronger as other relationships are forged, broken, forgotten or – the savage case of the Solara family – avenged.

Throughout, Cusack and McCormack are magnificent in the two leading roles, torn apart by petty jealousies, united by common bonds of suffering and loss. Others in the cast, including the multi-faceted Badria Timimi, recently seen on television’s Unforgotten, and Ira Mandela Siobhan as the swaggering Marcello Solara impress, but it would be a wrong to single out too many individual performances in what is all-consuming and arresting ensemble performance.

Rose Theatre, 24-26 High Street, Kingston, KT1 1HL. Tel: 020 8174 0090.

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