Photo credit: Johan Persson
The Go-Between is a musical adaptation of the classic novel by L.P. Hartley about a young boy, Leo, who during one faithful summer holiday serves as a secret messenger between a privileged rich girl and a nearby farmer. While Leo initially feels honoured to be their private postman, when tension mounts and he becomes aware of the true nature of the messages, it turns his happy care-free summer into something that leaves permanent emotional scars. The show opens with a much older version of Leo rediscovering his diary from that faithful summer decades later and reliving the moments that left him to become a tortured adult.
Set at the turn of the 20th Century, it's easy to believe young Leo's naivety when he joins his boarding school friend Marcus for a summer at Brandham Hall in Norfolk. The young Leo initially feels out of his comfort zone, wearing a far too warm suit because it's the only one his widowed mother believes will make Leo look like he belongs to a higher social class than he really does, but Marcus and his family are kind to him – especially Marcus' older sister Marion.
So when Marion asks Leo to do something for her, give a message to a nearby farmer about business matters, he's more than happy to oblige and return the kindness she has shown him. But one message leads to another and before Leo knows it he has become a regular go-between between the two people and he's unable to get out of it. All the time young Leo interacts with Marion, Marcus, the farmer and the adults at Brandham Hall, an elderly version of the character is on stage too, reflecting on the summer from an adult's perspective, seeing things brewing in the background his younger self completely missed and the devastating ending to the summer he forced himself to forget.
Adapted for the stage by David Wood (book and lyrics) and Richard Taylor (music and lyrics), The Go-Between is a gentle story, emanating endless sultry summer days where time stands still and there isn't a care in the world. It's something that can come across in novels very well, but for a theatrical production it felt a bit too slow and repetitive, making it more difficult for the audience to feel completely engaged with the events unfolding on stage. The harmonies of the music did provide a beautiful backdrop to the summer in Norfolk, and elevated the play into something a little more enchanting and otherworldly than its source material.
The musical has been heavily promoted as 'Michael Crawford in...', and while this legendary stage and screen actor (the original Phantom in Phantom of the Opera and well-known to older generations from Some Mothers Do Have 'Em) was on stage for the majority of the play, I couldn't help but feel that his quiet lingering in the background felt out of place and made it more difficult for the audience to be transported to the summer of 1900 and connect to young Leo. I understand that the entire story is based on the older Leo reading his diary from when he was a child, but once more this is an element that probably comes across better in a novel than on stage. Michael Crawford was absolutely fine in the role, but it's the choice to have his character on stage at all times that felt somewhat jarring.
For me the real star of the show was young Leo (a role shared between three actors and I believe the night I saw the show it was 13-year-old William Thompson on stage), whose subtle change from naive and carefree young boy to a frustrated and angry teenager forced to become wise beyond his years was hugely effective. He had a lovely voice as well, though while this is very much a musical in the sense that it contains a lot of songs, they actually felt more like background music to a play than a show with memorable tunes. I couldn't name many particular tracks that stood out to me but there was one song about a butterfly that was reprised several times throughout, though it was remarkable more for its beautiful choreography during the portrayal than anything else.
There were elements within The Go-Between that I thought were done very well; the costumes were beautiful, the cast was on top form, and if you dig deep there is a genuinely good story within the show too. However, it's stretched far too thin for a production that lasts nearly two and a half hours, turning an engrossing plot into a bland theatrical experience that simply isn't very remarkable. And that is a shame, as the cast and creatives are clearly very talented and try to make the most of what they're given.
I fully believe this story would work much better as a shorter play, without the older Leo consistently lingering in the background and with a clearer ending as it left on a somewhat vague note too. As it stands, this adaptation felt like a go-between between a musical and a play, not succeeding to excel as either.
The Go-Between is playing at the Apollo Theatre and taking bookings until 20 October 2016. Book your tickets here.