by Hilary Cordery
Set in Brooklyn, New York, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs records the life and struggles of an immigrant Jewish family in the 1930s, shortly before the Second World War. The narrative is seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Eugene Jerome (Harrison North).
Eugene aspires to be a writer, hence the play’s title. Tensions within the family give Eugene plenty of material for his memoirs, but the play also records Eugene’s own rite of passage as he becomes sexually aware and discovers the delights that girls can offer. I enjoyed Harrison’s portrayal of Eugene very much; he got the audience on his side right from the start with his asides, which continued throughout the play and were often very funny. His scenes with older brother Stanley (Daniel Ryan) were a particular pleasure – poignant, moving and funny in equal measure as Stanley tries to educate Eugene in the ways of the world. I found myself still smiling about the “golden palace of the Himalayas” on the way home. As Stanley, Daniel brought an impressive maturity and understanding of character to the stage for such a young actor. His energy and lovely comic timing were a real pleasure.
Staying with the younger cast members, Abigail Bailey (Eugene’s older cousin Nora) authentically captured the frustrated, selfish teenager with aspirations to be a star, who feels that her family, particularly her mother, simply don’t appreciate or understand her. As Laurie, the over-pampered younger cousin, Imogen Rampton was also impressive, particularly her American accent, which remained consistent throughout – no mean feat. I enjoyed both girls’ performances very much. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this production for me was witnessing the very real talent of so many younger actors from BLT’s Youth Group. I look forward to seeing them back on the main BLT stage and hope that BLT’s artistic programme continues to give our younger members plenty of opportunities to showcase their talents.
The actors in the generation above also did well: Stevie Hughes was completely convincing as Jack, the overworked father and head of the household. His calm, quiet, stillness was in nice contrast to the volatility of some of the female family members around him. I really felt the weight of responsibility on Hughes’ shoulders, epitomised for me when he asked with resignation, knowing the answer, “Can this family afford principles?”. Hughes is an experienced actor, which showed, and in my view, this was one of his best performances.
As sisters Kate and Blanche, Niki Mylonas and Fran McMenamin worked well together and provided much of the emotional intensity in the production. I was particularly moved by the scene where they were forced to confront the different treatment they had received at the hands of their parents, and how that had affected them throughout their lives. The relationship between sisters can be fertile ground for dramatic material (just think Disney’s biggest ever hit film, Frozen!), and this play explored that to good effect.
If I have one criticism of the production, it would be that the full ensemble family scenes needed greater tension and more of a sense of a family living on top of one another without privacy, struggling to make their way in a world which was rapidly
becoming antisemitic – the reality of which must have been almost claustrophobic. This would have then made more sense of the tensions and volatility in other scenes. The production was well staged, with an impressive and effective double-storey set. Lighting was used nicely throughout to highlight different parts of the house –although there were the odd patches of darkness on the night I saw the show where perhaps the lighting changes weren’t quite quick enough. Costumes were appropriately 1930s, and Blanche’s green evening dress in particular had the wow factor.
This was a poignant, funny and touching production, with some super individual performances. Well done to all involved.