Theatre Review: On The Waterfront

Posted on: 26 February 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews the gripping production of Steve Berkoff’s On The Waterfront.

Celluloid classics do not usually repeat their success when transferred from screen to stage but a notable exception is Steve Berkoff’s gripping production of On the Waterfront.

The time is the 1950s, the place New York and the dock workers’ union are in the stranglehold of the Mob.  If you’re on the inside then life is sweet - kickbacks, bribes and easy shifts are your rewards.  Go against them and your life isn’t worth living. 

Unwittingly implicated in a murder, Terry Molloy, a former boxer and waterfront bum, starts to question where his loyalties lie.  When he falls for the dead man’s beautiful sister, he enlists the help of the street-wise Father Barry to bring down the racketeers and testifies to the Waterfront Crime Commission, risking his own life in the process.

The key to Berkoff’s triumph is to eschew cinematic realism in favour of expressionism, with the 12-strong ensemble moving as if in a Greek chorus in studied, hyper-slow motion, miming actions which would normally be made by sound engineers. 

Furthermore designer Jason Southgate’s darkly lit, almost bare stage save for a number of chairs and an enormous tilting silhouette of the Statue of Liberty holding a sickle helps to confine the action and create the necessary claustrophobic effect - this is a situation from which no one can escape. 

This stage version was written by 96-year-old Budd Schulberg who was also responsible for the original screenplay and the themes of love and loyalty and corruption and conscience come over as powerfully as ever without the need to show violence and bloodshed in graphic detail. 

The screenplay was originally intended as a coded defence of the film’s director Elia Kazan who, to save his career, is said to have named ‘Communist’ names to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee of the McCarthy era.

But it is the performances that give this stunning piece of physical theatre its brilliance, most notably Simon Merrell, stepping into the role that propelled Marlon Brando into stardom, and making a strong impression as Terry, the washed-up boxer who finally discovers there is such a thing as conscience, and Steve Berkoff (who also directs), exuding a chilling sense of menace as the union leader cum mobster. 

Bryony Afferson, meanwhile brings a real intensity to the role of the dead man’s sister, and Vincenso Nicoli fully convinces as the militant priest determined to bring down the mob.

The moody atmospheric music by Mark Glentworth adds considerably to the impact of the drama.

Truly a memorable night in the theatre.

By Laurence Green

Show Details

When: Plays until the 25th April

Where: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Box Office: 0845 481 1870.

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