Gritty drama shines with the strength of its characters

Georgia May Foote as Vita, Hannah Bristow as Fran and Mona Goodwin as Tina. Picture by Marc Brenner
Georgia May Foote as Vita, Hannah Bristow as Fran and Mona Goodwin as Tina. Picture by Marc Brenner

Napoli, Brooklyn, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Monday to Friday, May 27-31

We reviewers are generally wise after the event.

Gloria Onitiri as Ceilia. Picture by Marc Brenner

Gloria Onitiri as Ceilia. Picture by Marc Brenner

We watch, sit in judgement and send a production packing on its next UK tour schedule. Now and again, though, it’s rather fun to become a previewer: and so last week I took a ride to the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, to see the show playing the Devonshire Park Theatre next week: Napoli, Brooklyn (Monday to Friday, May 27-31).

This play is like nothing else out there. If you watch only three productions this year, Napoli, Brooklyn has to be one of them. (For the other two, catch me in the interval bar...) Hard to categorise, set in 1960 New York, it might have been an undiscovered Arthur Miller, with a touch of Wesker’s social realism. The setting may be pretty grim, but the story is not dour: it shines with the strength of its characters – and with their uncrushable humanity.

“I came across the play almost by chance, one afternoon in New York,” says Original Theatre’s Alastair Whatley. “And I fell in love with it at once. That spark becomes a love affair, and this production is the outcome. We are thrilled and proud to be presenting its European Premiere, directed by the brilliant Lisa Blair.”

Writer Meghan Kennedy explains the background: “It’s loosely based on my mother’s adolescence, growing up in a big Italian Catholic community in Brooklyn. They were constantly struggling to survive, and to understand each other in the rapidly changing culture around them.”

The play has already impressed on Broadway.

Directing this production, Lisa Blair comments: “I wanted to tell this story, because although it’s a historic story it is very much a current one: a family of first-generation immigrants struggling to assimilate a changed environment. This play is a journey, based on Meghan’s own family history.”

The very title crystallises conflict – Napoli? Brooklyn? which? Well, this is conflict brought alive on stage. Immigrants’ deep roots versus Americanisation. A generational divide, traditional and conservative challenged by youth and liberation. And over-arching the action, a brooding and stifling Catholicism.

The story smoulders before it catches fire, sometimes quite heavy with angst, but do stay with it. There is humour, sometimes gentle, often ironic. There is anger and once or twice outrageous cruelty, but ultimately outshone by spirited human resilience and affection. Life is tough but apparently manageable, just about, until – at the pivotal mid-point of the play – the community’s life is shattered, literally, by a single catastrophic event. You’ll need to see the play to find out...

This is not your standard Herald review, so I will not dissect acting or direction. But the staging and design are beautifully authentic, and the theatrical experience is total. A phenomenal cast has eight credible, strongly written characters, with that wonderful sense that the actors have long since left the script behind and truly discovered each other. Robert Cavanagh (BBC1 Shetland) dominates as the brutish father and Georgia May Foote, if she ever needed to shake off that former-child-star tag, delivers a brilliant, perfectly judged reading of fragile but unshakeable daughter Vita.

Never mind me. Here are some reactions from other reviewers: “An intense, moving and utterly absorbing drama”; “The acting is terrific across the board”; “Full of atmosphere and slow-building tension… a complex, clever piece of theatre… enthralling.” “The performances by this wonderful cast are simply a joy to behold. It’s fast, drastic, fiery, joyful, explosive, poignant and, most importantly, uplifting!”

Among the clientele at the Arnaud – not a hugely different demographic from the Devonshire Park – I sensed a steady enveloping of the audience: from initial sceptical interest, to wrapt and focused attention, to final curtain-call acclaim, with punters old enough to know better actually on their feet in rich applause. Napoli, Brooklyn is heart-breaking but heart-warming, and a memorable piece of theatre.

Tickets from £18. Call 01323 412000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.

Tickets cost £18 - £25.50.

Concessions £1.50 off (7.45pm only).

Under 16s and students £9.

Under 25s £10.

Groups buy over 10 tickets receive 10% off (7.45pm only). Friends Of The Devonshire Park Theatre 25% off (First night only).