Berkoff in Brighton: A Slip Between Stage and Screen

Today I’m going to be talking about the recent adaptation of a 1991 Steven Berkoff play once entitled (tellingly) Brighton Beach Scumbags but now, for the cinema, just plain old Brighton.

It’s a nigh on impossible fruitless task to try and translate a Berkoff play to the big screen as his ‘total theatre’ – with its stylised movement, exaggerated vocals and facial expression and bare to minimal sets, inspired by everything from Brecht to Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre – will, like a square peg in a round hole, refuse to fit. Even so, you’d need a better filmmaker than Stephen Cookson, previously responsible for the godawful Timothy Spall vehicle Stanley, A Man of Variety, to attempt it.

I’d actually known about Brighton for some time. For some reason I was inundated with emails asking for financial assistance to get the film off the ground. Back then Ruth Sheen was attached to the project, but she has been replaced in the final product by Lesley Sharp. A shame, as it would have reunited her with Phil Davis, who so memorably played her other half in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes. Sharp and Davis, along with fellow Leigh regular (and indeed his other half in real life) Marion Bailey and Larry Lamb star as two aging couples from London, the suitably blunt sounding Doreen and Dave, Dinah and Derek, on a day trip to their old haunts in Brighton. All four give good performances, relishing Berkoff’s distinctive dialogue, and are dressed in the fashions of their youth (thinning, greying quiffs and teddy boy suits for the boys, beehives and floral dresses for the girls) in a nod to Berkoff’s stylised approach.

In the original play, the quartet sit in deckchairs and display their ignorance and bigotry at the changing landscape of society that exists around them. An incident at a bar, once their favoured watering hole but now a gay bar, has soured their day, with Derek and Dinah believing they were being laughed at, the clientele finding humour in Dinah’s obesity. Later, these presumed tormentors make themselves known again to the day-trippers, and the fears and aggression previously only articulated in sullen, toxic rumblings now find a violent outlet.

Problems immediately arise in this adaptation by the decision to not only update the play’s setting from 1991 to 2005 but to increase the ages of the central quartet from characters in their early fifties to those in their late 60s. I can kind of see why Cookson and his fellow screenwriter Melanie Harris have done this; though its principally to secure the cast (though of course Sheen substitute Sharp is playing older than her real age), I suspect they thought that there would be some contemporary post Brexit relevance in depicting these obnoxious, racist and homophobic characters as senior citizens – and the decision to depict the gay couple that Derek and Dinah believe to have been slighted by, as foreign, only further signposts these intentions. Despite the talents of the ensemble, it’s arguably the play’s first mistake. In his original play, Berkoff wrote of the quartet that “We might call them yobs and laugh at their Neanderthal struggles with existence, but within there is an awful sadness as they try and claw happiness out of their day” But Cookson wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants audiences to identify the characters with the ukipper and brexiteer boomers who have altered the course of our country and the futures of their children and grandchildren, but he wants the sympathy too. The problem is, he doesn’t know how to garner the latter. He doesn’t trust the text, and that is a crucial mistake.

What Berkoff was intending to show was that the two couples were hopelessly lost in a world changing too fast around them. Their decision to pay a visit to Brighton was an attempt to reconnect with something from their past, when they were young and assured, but it’s impossible to recapture that feeling. Berkoff asked audiences to be repulsed by their grotesque manners and bigotry (he called them scumbags in the title after all), but he equally asked them to consider the hopelessness and helplessness inherent in their attitudes, acknowledging that they were a product of their time and upbringing. The clue for this lies in Doreen, the voice of reason, who meets every one of Derek’s Neanderthal opinions on his wife’s obesity, of ‘P*kis’ and Black British, and of Brighton’s gay community, with a series of assured challenges. Doreen’s rebukes argue that it is not the fault of Dinah that she is overweight, “It’s her glands. She can’t help it”, and equally that gay men “Have too many female hormones. It’s not their fault. They can’t help it”. For Berkoff, these characters cannot help their appalling views either. They were indoctrinated long ago, their savagery more acute the less confident or useful they feel in their surroundings.

Instead of sticking to this, Cookson drafts on a series of subplots to make the characters not only more sympathetic, but also in an attempt to open out the action and make the affair less stage – we’ll, there’s only so many Dutch tilt shots you can make of four actors seated in deckchairs to try and distract us from its original origins I guess. There are flashbacks to how the two couples first met as young adults in the Brighton of 1960 and a whole new storyline for Doreen away from the others in which she meets with Adjoa Andoh’s Alice (“A person of colour” Dinah subsequently learns to say in the adaptation’s inevitable ‘Lesson Learned’, trite ending), who turns out to have been the young girl Doreen’s father sacrificed himself for when he saved her from drowning in 1955 – a tragic incident that left Doreen to be brought up in an orphanage. It’s a foolish mistake, largely because none of these new additions fit what has been established in Berkoff’s writing, or in the style in which he writes. In the scenes lifted wholesale from the play, the characters have a specific way of speaking that Cookson and Harris refuse to replicate, or are simply incapable of doing. It makes for a very jarring experience.

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