The first thing you see is “Aloha Hawaii” on a poster of a paradise beach. To live by the spirit of the Hawaiian word aloha is to treat everything and everyone with respect and love. But the pervading spirit at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, 1941, is not aloha – not in James Jones’ 1951 novel From Here to Eternity. It’s macho and vindictive.
The title is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen-Rankers”. Jones’ “rankers” are the US soldiers who enlisted for life because life offered nothing better – “30 year men”, coarse, despised and, in Kipling’s phrase, “Damned from here to Eternity”. (Jones apparently never liked Fred Zinnemann’s 1953 film From Here to Eternity because it lacked grit.)
Now it’s a West End musical, with Tim Rice dusting off his vaunted pen (after 13 years) to write the lyrics. It looks like a gamble. The material is tough, sexually explicit, and severely critical of the US army. Make light of it and it will be fluff; too dark and the box office will dwindle.
There are more than 30 characters – mostly soldiers, prostitutes or both – and three main plots. We follow Maggio (the excellent Ryan Sampson), a quiffy “wop” who isn’t cut out for the numbskull savagery of G Company, and two doomed love stories. It all leads up to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Tone and rhythm shift sharply: a love scene is followed by a prisoner singing “I love the army” before he’s beaten to death offstage. Tamara Harvey’s direction is stylish and to the point, complemented by designer Soutra Gilmour’s khaki barracks, pineapple beaches and spectacular video projections of kamikaze bombers. Stuart Brayson’s music includes blues, rock, big band swing and military cadence; half a dozen numbers bring the house down.
And the ensemble is strong, notably Robert Lonsdale as the boxer who won’t box because he made a promise to his mum.
Notwithstanding the occasional corny blip (Darius Campbell take a bow), it feels grown-up. It has a certain grit. It’s moving. You might just cry, fall in love, hum yourself to sleep to the tune of “Thirty Year Man”, wake up and join the army.