How to make it different from the film? That must have been the burning question facing the team devising this new stage version of L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. It’s a moving book; and a searingly superb film. I first saw it at my school’s film club one evening in 1973 and it connected with me instantly. I very much identified with the character of young Leo; reasonably confident and chirpy, but a fish out of water in a foreign environment populated with characters out of his league. Leo spends the school summer holidays staying at his friend Marcus’ grand Stately Home, with his grand Stately Family, which Leo’s recently widowed mother thinks will be beneficial in gaining status, influence and maybe indirectly wealth. In reality, Leo becomes involved in a moral game-plan outside of his understanding and ability. “He flew too close to the Sun, and was scorched.”
Of course the film has the superb cast of Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Leighton; and is backed by the haunting soundtrack of Michel Legrand. Comparisons are going to be odious, so it makes sense for the production team to visualise this in as different a manner as possible. The famous opening line “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, when spoken by Michael Redgrave, is full of resigned sadness, overflowing with Colston’s powerlessness to secure an emotional life after the psychological trauma of his childhood. In this new production directed by Roger Haines, James Staddon’s Colston is angry and bitter. He shouts the line, wretched and petulant, whilst the ghostly voices of the past beseech him to let them go, to release them back into history so that they can rest in peace and so that he can finally move on; but it’s not going to happen.
I found this opening sequence extremely dramatic and effective; and it sets the scene for how the adult Colston will be constantly surrounded by the other characters of the past as if they were there today. Thus the story is still palpably real to Colston, as he watches the other players act out the inevitably ghastly consequences of that summer; still affectionate to the young Leo and Marcus, still besotted with the young Marian, still admiring of the war-wounded Trimingham, still uncertain as to how he should behave with the unknown quantity that is Ted.
But to go back to that opening question, the chief way they have made this show different from the film is to remove the suspenseful and ominous soundtrack and make the whole show into a Lloyd Webber/Sondheim style operetta. In part this too is very effective. The ethereal feel of the music adds a poignancy to the story. By adopting singing instead of speaking, it also distances the story one stage further from reality, which is entirely in keeping with Colston’s nostalgia and inability to differentiate yesterday from today.
The downside to that is that the music itself is all recitative and no aria. Not strictly true; there is one individually identifiable song equating Leo to a butterfly. The rest of the libretto is just sung conversation, so you don’t get the feel of having seen a musical, it’s actually more artificial than that; and I found myself getting frustrated at the lack of a decent tune.
I also didn’t get any sense of why the events of that hot summer should have left Leo such a scarred personality that he was unable to come to terms with life thereafter. Yes, no doubt it would all have been very disagreeable, and with many unpleasant aspects when recalled to memory – but why is Leo so incapable of moving on? Many well-adjusted people will have had much harder things happen to them in their childhood. My recollection of the film is that you don’t question this aspect of the story – the use of the music, the juxtaposed extremes of weather, the bitterness of Margaret Leighton playing Mrs Maudley, the way the family turn against Leo, all hit you as psychological hammer blows. In this stage production you see Colston wincing and suffering as the tale unfolds but you kind of get the impression he’s just a big girl’s blouse; and that doesn’t do credit to L P Hartley’s original. This is not to detract from James Staddon’s performance, which is clear and honest; an accurate portrayal of a dishevelled post-World War 2 middle aged man haunted by idealistic depictions of late Victorian upper class decency and working class virility. He looks suitably world-weary and indeed a complete failure of a man; yet you can’t help feel that the problem could have been cleared up with a couple of sessions with a knowledgeable counsellor.
On the night we saw the show, young Leo was played by William Miles and he was most impressive. An excellent blend of confident and insecure, eager to please the influential grown-ups, desperate to take a moral stance, willing to do anything to please Marian, it was the kind of performance where you forgot you were watching an actor; he really was Leo. His Marcus was Adam Bradbury, another young actor giving a confident performance, relishing the delivery of some of the most amusing lines of the play. They made a very credible double act.
Of the remaining members of the cast, I very much enjoyed the foppish but slightly underplayed performance of Richard Kent as Marcus’ brother Denys, rooted in the class structure during the cricket match or when observing Ted swimming; and Stephen Carlile’s Trimingham was the epitome of reserved decency in his dealings with Leo and Marian; kindly, traditional, wearing his scar as a symbol of nobility.
I was a little unsure of the other major roles. Sophie Bould played Marian as a nice enough girl but I got none of the sense of why Leo would find her so bewitching. I didn’t feel much conviction in her anger when Leo refuses to deliver her letters, and I wasn’t sure there was much inner turmoil going on in there. Similarly, I wasn’t convinced that Stuart Ward’s Ted had an irresistible rough charisma; he seemed to me to be just another character in the landscape, but with a rural accent to make him appear different. In the chorus scenes he was made to blend in with the Brandham Hall bunch and therefore he didn’t stand out as the ghastly lower class chap amongst the toffs, to the extent I suspect he should. Gemma Page’s Mrs Maudsley had very little of the superior air and bullying intimidation that I think the role needs in order to shame Leo into revealing the truth about Marian and Ted’s relationship; and you sense she’s only the Grande Dame of the family through accident of genealogy rather than by means of strong character.
I think these under-realised roles account for why I feel Colston’s plight fifty years on really should be more molehill than mountain. They needed to have some element of larger-than-life to them; to be honest I found them smaller-than-life, and I think having them all communicating in the same musical style with no individual leitmotifs creates a homogenous mass rather than giving them their own personalities. Additionally, Ted’s suicide is only lightly touched on, whereas in the book I think it is a major influence in Colston’s decline and fall.
So whilst there were some very good aspects to this production, I felt that it wasn’t a patch on the film and not terribly convincing in the storytelling department. Rather than using the musical format to enhance and illuminate the story, I feel the story has been controlled and shaped to suit the format.