The week in theatre: A Little Life; Sea Creatures – review (2024)

At its best it is transfixing. At its worst it is like a blind date between several episodes of Friends and the Oberammergau passion play. A Little Life: a host of questions. I have rarely been quizzed with such intensity about a play. James Norton’s starring role, as Jude, is one of the reasons. Well: he is excellent. Yet curiosity is also driven by people’s ardent attachment to Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling novel, published in 2015. Is Ivo van Hove’s production a betrayal?

The answer to that is no. The demonstration of how early damage can stamp itself into someone’s DNA – how someone abused as a child is likely to turn on himself, unable to trust, unable to talk – is forcefully dramatised. Violence inflicted by monks and others is remorselessly displayed: burning, lashings with a belt, rapes. The emotional fervour of Jude’s college friends, doctor, analyst and adoptive father is abundantly evident, as it was in Edinburgh last summer, where the play was performed, in Dutch, with a different cast. The largeness (700 pages translates to nearly four hours) of the undertaking is extraordinary; the acting is terrific. Still, this leaves room for scepticism about the essence of book and adaptation; about the reverence with which both friendship and pain are treated – as if neither could be susceptible to inquiry.

The evening begins by seeming to wander out of, and tighten up, daily life. Before the lights go down, the four main actors are on stage chatting. Jan Versweyveld – who designs set, lighting and video – creates separate hyperrealistic zones around the stage: a chic kitchen counter at which real food is prepared; a hospital bed; a line of canvases in the process of being painted. Behind run videos of New York – yellow cabs, traffic lights, figures moving sometimes in slow motion, sometimes scudding; the screens occasionally fuzz over as if in sympathetic electric collapse.

Life outside barely permeates the action. The more engaged with the world of work, the more absent the personality. Luke Thompson is a finely subtle Willem, Zach Wyatt a calmly present but vestigially written Malcolm. Omari Douglas puts in a magnetic performance as the artist JB – twisting between charm and destructiveness – but JB fades from the plot, and his profile is undermined by showing his pictures. They are described as works of genius, and they are not; what is an audience to make of that? You would be hard put to know how Jude, made the main focus of the action, makes a living.

That, of course, is not his point. In a world largely shorn of competitiveness and imbued with an unusual degree of male empathy, Jude (despite his name) becomes Christlike. Suffering is a badge of superiority. The wounded, semi-clothed Norton, his body scored with the red lines of self-inflicted cuts and old scars, is lifted by sorrowing figures – as if in a painting of the Deposition. A group of string players close to the actors finely underline crucial moments, unleashing whining, whispering, stabbing, scraping. Two or three rows of spectators seated on stage become witnesses who heighten the effect of the action as they flinch, wince or dab their eyes.

Norton easily carries off the moments a lesser actor would ham up: the whimperings, convulsions of pain, the terror as he is pursued naked by a demonic driver. Yet what makes him truly impressive is the way he lets a strange sweetness glimmer through his difficulties; without that, his interest to his friends would be a mystery, and the production not so much drama as rite.

The week in theatre: A Little Life; Sea Creatures – review (1)

Adventurous, witty and given wings by wonderful sights and sounds, Sea Creatures is a marvellous example of a director and writer together expanding an idea. Cordelia Lynn’s new play, directed by James Macdonald, is a story of “slipping, sliding days”, of melting horizons and borders that shimmer between human and not human, sea and sky and land. When one character sings: “I do like to be beside the seaside”, it has to be a joke: this is the opposite of kiss me quick.

Max Pappenheim’s soundscape rolls around the audience, who are surrounded by the crash and suck of waves, the thud of birds hitting a glass wall, the hoot of a foghorn. The light, too, is transporting. Zoë Hurwitz’s design – well-equipped kitchen and dining space – is washed by Jack Knowles’s all-engulfing illumination, swept by marine shades, passing from purple to pale pink, always moving on.

Here, an all-female family drift uneasily: one sister has gone missing, not for the first time; her academic mother seems to be wandering mentally, though Geraldine Alexander shows her convincingly flashing into astuteness. A male visitor – played to furrowed perfection by Tom Mothersdale – is a lovely creation: a practical person who thinks it important to do as well as feel things, who wants to knock the fancifulness of all these women on the head (the audience are grateful for that) yet who is buckled with sadness.

Too much is crammed in – too many selkies, time blips and wise sayings – but there is a real pulse of adventure. Lynn meanders into archness, yet who would miss seeing the great June Watson as a kind of oracle. Or discovering the radiant talent of Grace Saif, in the comic though potentially irritating part of an idiot savant: told to learn how to iron, she wonders why people “want flat clothes”. Artless and exquisitely alert, she opens up the heart of the play. She also joins that group of female actors who casually display their character through veg-wrangling: Eileen Atkins peeling mushrooms in The Height of the Storm; Linda Bassett eviscerating runner beans in Roots. Given a potato to peel, Saif stabs at it fiercely and sadly, as if reluctantly skewering a small animal.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Little Life
★★★★
Sea Creatures ★★★★

  • A Little Life is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 18 June, then at the Savoy theatre, London, 4 July to 5 August

  • Sea Creatures is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 29 April

The week in theatre: A Little Life; Sea Creatures – review (2024)

FAQs

The week in theatre: A Little Life; Sea Creatures – review? ›

Cordelia Lynn's new play, directed by James Macdonald, is a story of “slipping, sliding days”, of melting horizons and borders that shimmer between human and not human, sea and sky and land. When one character sings: “I do like to be beside the seaside”, it has to be a joke: this is the opposite of kiss me quick.

What are the trigger warnings before reading A Little Life? ›

TW: sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, scary verbal abuse, psychological manipulation and gaslighting, kidnapping/imprisonment, many modes of self-harm, a violent accident, a few moments of prejudice against the disabled, drug use, addiction, grief and loss of a loved one.

Has A Little Life been made into a movie? ›

A Little Life | About the Event

Following a sell-out West End run, this record-breaking production of the million-copy bestseller by Hanya Yanagihara will now be released in cinemas across the UK and selected international territories on September 28.

What age is A Little Life appropriate for? ›

Leah I would strongly advise that a 14 year old not read this book. This book is... a lot... even for an adult. There are some seriously mature themes and scenes that frankly no one is really equipped to process, let alone a young teen.

What is the story of the Little Life Theatre? ›

The story follows four best friends, Willem, JB, Malcom and Jude, and their creative pursuits in New York City. The play centres around Jude, whose tortured past haunts him, preventing him from letting his loved ones get too close. James Norton gives the performance of a lifetime.

How graphic is A Little Life? ›

The scenes are so incredibly graphic and vivid that you can literally see them in front of your eyes. When I was in a particularly long reading session, the page disappeared, and I was warped directly into the world of Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm.

Is A Little Life based on a true story? ›

Answer and Explanation: Hanya Yanagihara did not base A Little Life on a true story.

What was Jude's accident in A Little Life? ›

He also explains to Willem that the damage to his legs was caused by a man called Dr. Traylor, who picked Jude up and held him captive while he cured him of venereal disease, assaulted him, and eventually ran him over with his car.

What is the saddest part of A Little Life? ›

The saddest part of the book isn't just the traumatic experiences that Jude has experienced, but also the pain it causes the people who love him, and how it affects not just his life, but also the lives of the people around him.

Can a 13 year old read A Little Life? ›

I would not recommend this book for a 13-year-old. Alex There's nothing graphic, only a bit of talk about sex from time to time but honestly, it's not that bad. Nothing a thirteen (or I guess fourteen because this question is old now) year old should be bothered by or sheltered from.

How does A Little Life end? ›

In the end, Jude commits the ultimate self-abuse when he kills himself after he can no longer bear the loss of Willem's death or his own physical pain.

How old are the boys in A Little Life? ›

The book, which was published last month, is about four male friends who age from their mid-20s into their early 50s in an undated New York.

How old are the characters in A Little Life? ›

Carlie Tottman The main character's story goes from birth up to 50's, the other 3 ranges from them starting college up to their 50's.

What is the main message of A Little Life? ›

The Responsibility to Navigate One's Own Happiness

The novel's four main characters, the college friends JB, Malcolm, Jude, and Willem, face different challenges as they navigate their own paths toward happiness. In the modern New York City they inhabit, the common, everyday struggles of humanity are very distant.

Why is A Little Life called A Little Life? ›

A LITTLE LIFE is a title with 3 meanings. First, it refers to its protagonist, Jude, a man who cannot ever accept that his life is worthwhile. Second, it refers to the act of reading it, spending time in this book is really like living a version of life.

What is the main conflict in A Little Life? ›

Two go into professional careers—Jude becomes a lawyer and Malcolm, an architect—while JB and Willem pursue art and acting, respectively. But it soon becomes clear that the biggest conflict in A Little Life is Jude's struggle with his past demons, which include abandonment and abuse.

Which book has most trigger warnings? ›

Popular Massive Trigger Warning Books
  • Turtles All the Way Down John Green.
  • Haunted Chuck Palahniuk.
  • Calling Maggie May Anonymous.

What is the trigger warning in little secrets? ›

Suicide attempt, suicide, suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol use, missing/abducted children.

What is the warning at the beginning of a book? ›

While it may feel counterintuitive to warn people about reading your book, the purpose of a content warning is not to turn readers away. Rather, it simply tells readers what they can expect and empowers them to make their own decisions.

What is the trigger warning in the words we keep? ›

Content warnings include attempted suicide, mental health and self harm. Readers with emetophobia may have trouble with some scenes.

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