Think From Here To Eternity and images of sand, surf and intertwining bodies immediately spring to mind, but Tim Rice’s new musical takes the story back to its novel roots with a far grittier look at James Jones’ stories of soldiers waiting for action on Hawaii.
While there may still be flower garlands and crashing waves in Tamara Harvey’s sumptuous production, the majority of the action takes place in the dilapidated barracks of the G Company Platoon, a crumbling beige-tinged base where the men – all of whom have enlisted not through patriotism but as a way of finding work and escaping home – box, smoke and train amongst the cold military beds and regulation dull uniforms.
Centring on three soldiers who find themselves posted on this island better known for paradise than bombs, the tale weaves together the stories of the no-nonsense, straight backed Sergeant Milt Warden, who finds himself in the precarious situation of falling in love with his Captain’s wife, Kentucky-born bad boy Robert Lee Prewitt and the platoon’s comic underdog, Angelo Maggio, a try hard Private with a thick Brooklyn drawl whose spirited demeanour leads to grisly repercussions.
Packed with romance, heartbreak and betrayal set against the dramatic backdrop of the second World War, From Here To Eternity provides more than enough inspiration for Rice and his musical collaborator Stuart Brayson, with a surprisingly eclectic, catchy score the result. From using the soldiers’ grunts as they perform military exercises as a bass line to an orchestra of Hawaii’s famous ukuleles, each song cleverly embraces elements from the tale and the characters’ mismatched heritages, resulting in everything from frivolous bluesy solos to big band numbers and passionate company pieces that soar through the auditorium delivering Rice’s emotive and often witty lyrics with rousing harmonies.
In his first major West End role, Robert Lonsdale is captivating as the guarded Prewitt, his soulful, rock voice – swap the uniform for skivvies and he could be performing in Once – perfectly befitting his earthy character whose passionate love story with the talented Siubhan Harrison’s Lorene provides the show with edge. In contract Darius Campbell and his onstage beau Karen Holmes (Rebecca Thornhill) provide the Hollywood gloss; both looking and sounding like 1950s movie stars, making the most of Bill Oakes’ book that, while never shying from four-letter words or a bit of raunch, retains an old-fashioned edge that places us firmly in 1941.
This is not an old-fashioned musical however, which Javier De Frutos’ stunning choreography makes sure of. Making the most of the setting’s contrasting military precision and fluid hula, almost every scene boasts striking performances ranging from physically demanding army drill routines to sexually charged brothel-set dances where Harrison oozes power as she is passed from solider to soldier.
For all designer Soutra Gilmour’s gorgeous sepia-steeped postcard scenes and stylish floral costumes, it is the darker edges to From Here To Eternity where audiences will find themselves engrossed. Cemented by a final scene that provides an explosive, sentimental but hard-hitting climax, Harvey has truly created a grown-up musical, and no amount of singing or dancing, romance or sex can distract from Jones’ brutal account of army life.