My Brilliant Friend review: Elena Ferrante's story makes a triumphant transition to stage

Marc Brenner
Marc Brenner

From Elena Ferrante’s cult quartet of Neapolitan novels, playwright April de Angelis and director Melly Still have carved a richly textured, two-part piece of theatre exploring a complex female friendship across decades of postwar history.

Leading a well-drilled ensemble as Lenù and Lila, Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack show that, in an underclass exploited by politicians, capitalists, gangsters and religion, it’s always women who come off worst. But that’s really only part of it.

Lenù and Lila are bright girls born into brutal poverty in Naples. While Lenù continues her education and finds success as a writer, Lila’s guts, looks and sharpness send her down a harsher path.

Or is it? Ferrante’s subtle talent is to plot the way affection and rivalry shift between the two as they are repeatedly traduced by life (and men).

The show also expresses the notoriously publicity-shy Ferrante’s ambivalence about her craft. The unshowy way the two lead actresses progress from childhood to old age is a pleasure to behold. Cusack vacillates wonderfully between longing and regret, while wintry resentment seems etched on McCormack’s face.

Still’s staging, co-produced with and first seen in 2017 at Kingston’s Rose Theatre, captures the essence of the story rather than aiming for verisimilitude.

The cast use a variety of accents. The violence visited on Lila is done to dresses manipulated by puppeteers, who later animate the two women’s daughters.

Soutra Gilmour’s set features endlessly reconfigurable concrete stairwells in front of a series of video screens. The soundtrack deftly defines each era, in music, but also in the evolving sounds of scooters, cars, computers and ringtones.

Parts one and two of the story each stand well alone, but there is the undeniable marathon-runner’s thrill in seeing all five-plus hours in a single day. I’m always slightly irked when writers write about writing and — whisper it — I only managed two of the books when Ferrante-fever first broke out. But I actually didn’t want this show to end.

In rep to February 22 (020 7452 3000,