How much relentless misery would you endure to see James Norton STARKERS on stage? Adaptation of hit novel A Little Life could leave fans sobbing with grief
Hanya Yanagihara’s doorstop of a novel, A Little Life, is a global phenomenon. Since it was published in 2015, it has sold more than a million copies.
It has also been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, deemed a ‘modern-day classic’, lauded by many and loathed by others who dub it ‘trauma porn’, ‘gratuitously miserable’ and insist they wouldn’t recommend it to their worst enemy.
It has spawned online fan clubs, Facebook groups and more than 200 million searches on TikTok, along with a mad craze in which fans film themselves sobbing with grief as they read the final pages.
Because, for those unfamiliar with it (probably most of us aged over 40), A Little Life — which tells the story of university friends Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB, all living in New York — is not a cheery read.
It won’t pep up your day or put a spring in your step. And it is so swirling with trauma, abuse, self-harm, rape, suffering, suicide and blood that if you’re even a teeny bit squeamish, it might be best to step away now.
James Norton stars in the eagerly awaited adaptation of A Little Life. Since it was published in 2015, it has sold more than a million copies
But none of that has deterred the extremely excitable crowd outside the Richmond Theatre in London, eagerly awaiting the first night of the (very long) stage adaptation, starring James Norton, fresh from his role as psychopath Tommy Lee Royce in the third series of BBC’s Happy Valley.
Barely 15 minutes before curtain-up, the atmosphere is febrile — and the crowd seems split into two camps.
Some are A Little Life superfans wearing A Little Life-themed sweatshirts and holding copies of the book aloft or cradling them like tiny babies. Armed with bumper boxes of tissues, they know what’s coming. They are braced for an onslaught of melodramatic misery and can hardly wait.
I chat to Thomas Soo, a 40-year-old architect who is filming himself holding his treasured hardback.
‘I loved the book. It resonated. The friendship. The life stories. It’s so touching. I cried,’ he says. ‘I had to be here. Though I am not familiar with James Norton.’
He will be soon. Very.
Which brings me to the other camp. This half of the crowd are not here to pay tear-stained homage to Yanagihara’s 720-page tome. Many have never even heard of it, let alone read it.
‘I’d like to pretend I’m very literary but I’m just here to see James Norton naked,’ says Jo, a mum from Twickenham who is here with a bunch of very bouncy pals. ‘It’s going to be three hours of hell, looking at his a***, isn’t it?’
‘Three hours and 40 minutes,’ pipes up someone else. ‘And it isn’t just his a***.’
And the whoops begin.
Because, forget the book. This lot are here only for Norton, a man who can do something unnerving to almost any full-blooded woman with just a smile and is hotly tipped as the next James Bond.
This lot are here only for Norton, a man who can do something unnerving to almost any full-blooded woman with just a smile
Even as Royce — a rapist and murderer — his extraordinary sex appeal shone through. Obsessed viewers dubbed him ‘the sexiest psychopath ever’, Twitter flew into a frenzy of appreciative aubergine emojis, and Dame Joanna Lumley declared breathily: ‘Tommy Lee Royce, he makes my valley happy . . .’
So the chance to see Norton starkers, front and back, on stage — even if he spends a lot of it abused, bullied, broken and self-harming — has led to a bunfight for tickets, with the original run twice extended into the West End.
But back to the book, which here is being faithfully (perhaps too faithfully) followed by the play.
Without giving away too much, Jude, the central character, is a successful lawyer with a group of very successful friends who love him — but he has also endured a life so monstrous that he cannot bear to talk about it.
It’s almost as if American author Yanagihara (a woman, by the way) made a list of everything awful that could ever happen in life, then heaped every single one of those things on poor Jude.
He is abandoned as a baby, abused by monks, raped, pimped, beaten up, held captive, raped some more, run over — and copes with the pain by self-harming.
And all of it is included for us here in Richmond, as we sip our G&Ts.
The first bit of self-harm — Norton hacking at his wrists with a razor blade as we watch through our fingers — comes less than 15 minutes in; and after that the blood comes thick and fast.
As his clothes come off for the first time, the audience sits up a teeny bit straighter (good thing theatre staff carefully stuck stickers over the camera bits of everyone’s phones as we came in). But after that, the trauma rolls on. Disaster after disaster — the abuse, rapes, cruelty — befalls poor old Jude, who is on and off the blood-stained hospital gurney so many times I lose count.
Little wonder that, as well as an intimacy coach, the stage production has a psychotherapist on hand to keep an eye on the cast’s mental wellbeing. Or that the show is strictly 16-plus and comes with an almost comically long content warning which covers everything from self-harm and abuse to nudity, smoking and the smell of antiseptic.
Come the interval, about two hours in, the theatre bars are mobbed. ‘Better make it a bottle’, ‘A double, please. Two doubles!’
‘I think I’ve got PTSD!’ says one young chap.
When the same highly acclaimed Belgian director, Ivo van Hove, put on the show in New York last year, a great swathe of the audience apparently scarpered at half time (possibly because that production was even longer, at four hours and ten minutes, and in Dutch with English subtitles).
The Grantchester and Happy Valley actor is hotly tipped as the next James Bond
Tonight, no one is leaving. But there is a spattering of ‘good lucks’ as we head back in for another round of shocking abuse.
On and on it goes. Utterly despairing and a bit repetitively relentless. Which is a shame, because the acting from the entire ensemble is amazing.
And James Norton gives it his everything, a tour de force of cutting, crying, shouting, moaning, singing (rather wonderfully), flitting between Jude as a man and his eight-year-old abused self, and generally hurling himself about — much of the time naked.
At one point he runs round and round the stage, everything bobbing, as he is chased by a murderer trying to run him down in an imaginary car.
‘I’m not sure I’d use the word enjoyment. It’s not enjoyable, it’s bloody brutal, but it is compelling and he looks good, doesn’t he?’ says Sara, a lawyer from Fulham.
Lord knows why Norton has chosen to bury himself in this darkness for nearly four hours a day, plus matinees, for months.
Perhaps he wants to show his more serious side and stop us all drooling over him. Good luck with that, James!
Or maybe, as someone who was badly bullied at school, he feels a resonance with poor Jude. Or he wants to prove that type 1 diabetes — he is a sufferer — doesn’t have to hold you back, so long as you can sneak in plenty of sugary snacks as you act (there is a lot of random eating on stage).
Or, of course, it could simply be that, like so many, he read the book and really loved it. And certainly it seems that, while the trauma is just as monstrous on paper, it is somehow better absorbed over 720 pages. You care more. You are more engaged with the characters. You are invested in them and their relationships.
In a play, however, even one as ridiculously long as this — so long, in fact, that some people are eating picnic dinners out of tinfoil packages — it just feels a bit much. Perhaps less really is more?
So when, deep into the very long second half, two of Jude’s best friends and his only remaining glimpse of happiness are all mown down by a lorry, a ripple runs through the audience.
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ exclaims one of Jo from Twickenham’s Prosecco gang, loudly. ‘What next?’ mutters another. ‘Is the cat going to die?’ Clearly, I am not the only one willing it on to its grisly end.
Because, yes, the acting is phenomenal. And, yes, James’s lovely white bottom is a thing of extraordinary beauty. And the set and the direction are great.
But this is also just one very long slab of misery, and no amount of full-frontal James Norton nudity — and there is a lot — would entice me to watch it again.
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