My Brilliant Friend review – Elena Ferrante's twisting tale of heroines for our age

At the start of the first novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, its two young protagonists begin a fractious friendship by hurling each other’s beloved dolls through a grille into a cellar controlled by the local loan shark, who lurks beneath the street like a bogeyman. They later seal their bond in more conventional terms, clasping hands that they have gouged with a rusty nail.

These two scenes set the tone of the relationship between Lenù and Lila – its recklessness and ardent competitiveness – while establishing a generic range in Ferrante’s writing that is intrinsically theatrical. The little girls’ subterranean hunt for their lost dolls comes to an abrupt end with their discovery of a terrifying second world war gas mask, introducing a historical context to the novels and a recurring flash of gothic comedy to Melly Still’s production. Their blood sisters ritual is a clear nod to mafia fiction – a travesty, and an appropriation, of the secret alliances of men in a poor neighbourhood ruled by random violence and organised extortion.

April De Angelis’s five-hour adaptation, a transfer from the Rose Theatre in Kingston, sticks pretty scrupulously to the novels as Lenù and Lila’s paths weave in and out over four sections and half a century. By clawing her way into an education, Lenù becomes the storyteller, while Lila’s precocious brilliance appears to have been snuffed out after she is hoiked out of school to work for her cobbler father. There is as much poignancy in his enraged insistence that they don’t make shoes, only mend them, as there is in the fact that her defiance merely gifts a local Camorra thug some swanky footwear, courtesy of her weak and abusive first husband.

Soutra Gilmour’s set of four mobile staircases evokes the claustrophobia of narrow streets … My Brilliant Friend. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Each section represents a book and a period, with its own mood music, from the twist to the Beatles and Joan Armatrading. While Soutra Gilmour’s set of four mobile staircases cleverly evokes the claustrophobia of narrow streets packed with high tenement buildings, the busy soundscape tries too hard to make the story relatable, when the power of Ferrante’s writing lies in its specificity.

After the bleakness of the early sections, in which acts of terrible retribution are inflicted on disembodied white puppet dresses and a huge picture of pig carcasses looms over the factory where Lina works as a hollow-eyed outcast, the mood becomes ever more frenetically comic, before dropping back into oddly numbing tragedy.

The rhetoric of social idealism falls to the posturing Nino (nicely played by Ben Turner as a bargain-basement Byron) and later to a sociopathic pair of young revolutionary activists, while Lenù struggles to love her scurfy academic husband (Justin Avoth) and breastfeed two babies impersonated, disturbingly, by adults. Even the terrifying Solara family become comedy mobsters, with sharp-suited brothers (Adam Burton and Ira Mandela Siobhan) flanking Emily Mytton’s toadlike matriarch.

Bargain-basement Byron ... Ben Turner as Nino and Cusack in My Brilliant Friend.

Bargain-basement Byron … Ben Turner as Nino and Cusack in My Brilliant Friend. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Ferrante’s already byzantine list of characters is further complicated by a doubling that leads to a few baffling interpretations (the elegant aloofness of Badria Timimi, for instance, works well for a professor and Lenù’s intellectual mother-in-law but is less credible for Lila’s brow-beaten, illiterate mother). But Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, respectively as Lenù and Lila, hold the centre with a magnetic force, as convincing at 12 as at 60, circling each other with the passionate intensity of caged lionesses. They are locked in orbit by their incendiary shared conviction that “until we write our own stories, we won’t know who we are”. On stage, as in the novels and the TV adaptation, they truly are heroines for our age.

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