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  • Julian Wood


FOUR AND A HALF STARS A deeply troubled young man seeks the love and support of his best friends. Recorded live at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London.


Starring James Norton, Luke Thompson

There is no getting around the subject of this sad, scary play from the NT Live series. Be warned this is a tough watch. Usually content warnings are either obligatory, unnecessary or are anyway ignored. This time you really should be forewarned, especially if there is sexual abuse in yours or a friends’ past.

As indicated, this is one of those London theatre productions now getting a limited theatrical release. It’s another chance to catch world class drama either in the cinema or via subscription to the small screen. A LITTLE LIFE is based on a novel by Hawaiian/American author Hanya Yanagihara and directed by long term London stage director Ivo Van Hove, a story that revolves around four young American men and their friendships and gay love affairs.

When we first meet them they are at that flat sharing stage of life. It's soon revealed that they regard themselves as a bit of a band of brothers, with tensions over who is going to make it as well as who is attracted to whom. Initially it is JB (Omari Douglas) who seems to be the main character. He is a precociously talented painter who raids glimpses of his friends to make eye-catching portraits. He looks set to become a painter of note, but we are also made aware of the fickle nature of the art world in which he hopes to become established.

One of his main objects of desire is flatmate Jude (James Norton - LITTLE WOMEN, HAPPY VALLEY). As the play’s focus shifts we realise not only what a complicated character Jude is, but how trauma has become a lifelong influence. Jude has a spinal injury that may yet put him in a wheelchair, but for now the play is more interested in his invisible scars as an abuse survivor. Later the two injuries will be dramatically linked in a way that compounds the pity and terror the play draws out of us.

Norton really shines in the role as he plays Jude in so many different aspects of his life. It is a riveting performance both brave (not least for the frequent vulnerable onstage nudity) and extremely touching. It is a long way from the foppish types he sometimes plays in British historical soaps/dramas.

The staging of the play is also both fluid and skilfully handled. There are so many scenes and settings that need to be portrayed; including flashbacks and overheard conversations, intimate exchanges, and large group scenes. Hove and his team have blocked this out really thoughtfully, a challenge made more complex because we can see the action is staged ‘in the round’.

This pacing and mixture of foci helps to break things up. Though the play is very long at over three and half hours it is absorbing all the way through. At certain scenes the audience (in the cinema as much as at the occasion being filmed) is dead silent and hanging off every word.

So, back to the themes and the trigger warnings as A LITTEL LIFE characterises (and even portrays) the perpetrators as well as the victims. Here it is worth stating that the work does not spare the Catholic Church, especially the priesthood. The details of what some clergy did, even as relayed in dialogue, are so confronting that you just want to shut it out of your mind. The element of systemic abuse only compounds our sense of grief and revulsion.

As mentioned, this is not a play for the faint hearted. Courage is rewarded with further consolation that this complex and incredibly challenging work has managed to forge anger into art.



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