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The Theatreguide.London Review

From Here To Eternity
Shaftsbury Theatre   Autumn 2013 - Spring 2014

The West End has been waiting for a strong dramatic musical with the power and stature of Phantom or Les Miserables, and here at last it is.

From Here To Eternity tells a weighty and engrossing story with good songs, inventive and evocative staging, and at least three out of five powerful performances in the central roles. 

Following James Jones' 1951 novel, Bill Oakes' script centres on Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a career soldier at an army base in Hawaii in 1941 (pause to note the place and time) who just wants to be left alone but is tormented by his commanding officer and fellow soldiers because he won't join the base's boxing tournament. 

Prewitt is naïve enough to fall in love with one of the girls at a local whorehouse, and is befriended by feisty fellow soldier Maggio, who can't keep out of trouble himself, and protected to some extent by gruff but sympathetic sergeant Warden, who is sleeping with his CO's wife. 

The intertwined plot lines build toward their various climaxes and then suddenly it's December 7 and the sky is full of Japanese planes. 

(Oakes follows the 1953 film in building up the Warden-Karen subplot into an equal parallel to the Prewitt-Lorene romance, and in combining Maggio's story with another hapless soldier's, but he goes back to the novel in acknowledging that Lorene is a whore and not just a dancehall hostess and that Karen is a serial adulteress specialising in her husband's sergeants – and in not censoring the rampant obscenities that are a soldier's natural language.) 

And so the musical deals with two very different romances along with questions of honour, of friendship and betrayal, of why men join the military, and of how much people are capable of change, along with the hindsight-gained awareness that a whole generation of young men are about to die or have the single defining experience of their lives. 

You can see why this story bears comparison to Les Miserables, and like Les Mis it has a musical score and a visual production worthy of its themes and subjects. 

The songs – music by the virtually unknown Stuart Brayson, lyrics by the very known Tim Rice – range from the expected love songs and self-searching soliloquies for each of the four lovers, through evocative expressions of the average soldier's love-hate relationship to the army and a hula-flavoured variant on Hey Big Spender for the whores, to a moving and dramatic anthem honouring and mourning what a later commentator would label the Greatest Generation of Americans.

It is never easy to predict which songs will leap out of a score, but I would be surprised if we didn't start to hear other versions of Run Along Joe, Love Me Forever Today, Ain't Where I Wanna Be Blues and The Boys Of '41. 

Director Tamara Harvey not only keeps things moving, getting loads of exposition and plot out with efficiency and clarity, but captures the air of things driving forward to an inescapable doom by frequently overlapping scenes or staging two separate events simultaneously. 

Along with choreographer Javier De Frutos, she knows the theatrical power and beauty of a stage full of men moving in unison, and she has learned from the staging of Billy Elliot the effectiveness of choreographing two separate numbers (like the whore's dance of enticement and the soldiers' drilling) in the same space. 

Darius Campbell gives Warden all the manly power of a romantic hero, while making us believe that this cool cynic could deal with a one-night stand that somehow turns into real love, while Rebecca Thornhill makes Karen intimidatingly hard-edged from her first appearance and then allows us to see that that's a self-created protective shell as she faces the risks of dismantling it. 

The weak links in the cast are Robert Lonsdale, unable to find a personality for Prewitt and so nearly invisible that he repeatedly gets lost in the crowd scenes so that we have to take on faith that Prewitt is worth our attention and sympathy, and Siubhan Harrison, stuck with the underwritten and just-this-side-of-cliché role of the warm-hearted whore Lorene and unable to do much with it except look pretty and sing nicely. 

The star-is-born surprise, I predict, is Ryan Sampson as Maggio. The musical raises him from second-string victim to a Chorus figure whose attitude toward the army shapes ours, and Sampson invests him with the bantam energy, high spirits and danger of a musical Joe Pesci so that he dominates and steals every scene he's in.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - From Here To Eternity - Shaftsbury Theatre 2013  

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