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My Brilliant Friend
"Literature is alright as far as it goes, but it doesn't advance the cause of social justice." — Lenu
My Brilliant Friend
Lela (Catherine McCormack) and Lenu (Niamh Cusack) (Photo: Marc Brenner)
It left an Elena Ferrante sized hole in my life last year when I finished reading The Story of the Lost Child the last of her four novels based on the friendship and rivalry between two women who had both grown up in a poor area of Naples. Now the district may have been poor but the characters that people Ferrante's novels are richly described in her compelling narrative. Further, at that time Elena Ferrante's true identity was a complete mystery as she wanted her novels to speak for themselves rather than to promote the cult of the author. She also implied that she didn't want her family to recognise themselves in the books' characters. Such was the popularity of the quartet that tour operators were organising tours of Elena Ferrante's Naples.

It was with some trepidation that I saw the proposed staging of these wonderful novels and I knew I had to see them hoping that they would meet my expectations. I knew the books well as I often re-read the chapter I had already finished when recommencing reading. The writing was so good and indeed the translation, that I wanted to linger over them. I did wonder how much sense the first act of the plays would make without a knowledge of the novels but I am sure that by Act Three in the second performance all would become clear. The Third book Those That Leave and Those That Stay was my absolute favourite and so it was with the play. I was lucky enough to see all four on one day starting with the Saturday matinee for Acts One and Two, moving on to Acts Three and Four in the evening.

I am not going to go into detail with the storyline here. Suffice it to say that Lela Cerullo (Catherine McCormack) from the family of shoemakers and Elena, nicknamed Lenu, Greco (Niamh Cusack) whose father is the porter were both born in 1944 and that the saga takes them forward over six decades and into their sixties.

Lela is the one described as My Brilliant Friend and she is a magnetic personality, very bright and acerbic who educates herself by reading books and whose life takes many twists and turns. In fact, the whole Cerullo family earn the prizes for the best readers in the area but it is Lela alone who took out all the library books and read them using the family's library cards. Her friend, Lenu will work hard at school and go on to university, marrying an academic and having three daughters.

Nino Sarratore (Toby Wharton) is the handsome boy both women will be involved with. His father Donato (Martin Hyder) is the railway worker with aspirations to being a published poet but he is also the local lothario. The Solara brothers Marcello (Ira Mandela Siobhan) and Michele (Adam Burton) are local business owners who rule the roost, with links to the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia.

The storylines illustrate women's issues in Italy over the last half of the twentieth century. Lenu will write a groundbreaking novel with explicit sexual detail but based on her real life experiences and find favour with and fall out of favour with the academic political left wing elite. Lela will become a child bride, work in a salami factory, a spokeswoman for the Left and the unions and later build a business in computers standing up to the Solaras. Both women will experience marriage and break ups and motherhood.

Catherine McCormack has an edginess as Lela. She is brave and feisty and has exactly the right amount of street cheek. "Go suck your mother's tits!" she says as she stands up to the Solaras in an early scene, but life will not always be kind to her.

Niamh Cusack is perfectly cast as Lenu. She is the heart of the book, and the heart of the play, someone loyal who works hard to achieve what she achieves but often outshone by Lela. The other ten members of the cast take on myriad parts. I found Emily Watcher's Immacolata to be an uncomfortable caricature but Badria Timimi was excellent in all four of her roles as the Professor and as Adele, Lenu's powerful mother in law.

Melly Still's direction is full of physical theatre as she allows her characters to expressively convey the bustle of Neapolitan balconies with sheets thrown over them as they would have had the washing hanging out. The Rose Theatre has a large two level playing area ideal for an expansive epic like this one. Music features with jazz introducing Don Achille Caracci (Martin Hyder), the loan shark and his family and the swaggering Solara brothers. Connie Francis's "Where the Boys Are" accompanies Lela choosing a wedding dress from a selection avoiding the meringue, the suit and the nun's nightie as she plans her wedding to the grocer Stefano Caracci (Jonah Russell). When someone is raped a sheet is thrown around and violated as the girl lies motionless on the ground. I loved the scene where Lenu is mobbed by her two daughters, played by adults, as she tries to concentrate on entertaining Nino. You will laugh at the sounds of Lenu's wedding night to the sexually inexperienced and naive professor Pietro (Justin Avoth).

April De Angelis has had the task of converting the books into a screenplay with just twelve actors taking on over 30 named roles and although this was a Herculean task, and although this is exciting theatre I feel most at home with the printed word and my imagination about the world of Lela and Lenu. Of course they don't have to be mutually exclusive! Don't expect neat happy endings, like Lela and real life, the endings are flawed but realistic.

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My Brilliant Friend
Written by Elena Ferrante
Adapted by April De Angelis
Directed by Melly Still
Starring: Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack
With: Justin Avoth, Adam Burton, Martin Hyder, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Victoria Moseley, Emily Mytton, Jonah Russell, Badria Timini. Emily Wachter, Toby Wharton
Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Design: Malcolm Rippeth
Sound Design: Jon Nicholls
Composer: James Fortune
Puppet Director: Rachel Canning
Movement: Sarah Dowling
Running time: Two parts, each of two hours 30 minutes minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 8174 0090
Booking to 2nd April 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th March 2016 performance at The Rose Theatre 24-26 High St, Kingston upon Thames KT1 1HL
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