From Here To Eternity is not the easiest sell in the world, as musicals go. After all, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory: The Musical seems like a natural fit for the stage, with all the bright colours and general insanity. But a World War II movie about GIs butting heads before the war is even joined, falling for married women or prostitutes and getting thrown in the stockade? It's a little harder to see immediately where you fit in the high kicks and the sequins. What's more, we're talking about a story by the famously somber author James Jones, also responsible for The Thin Red Line, who was there in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor and who then fought his way across the Pacific. To make light of that legacy would be to lose your audience before you even begin. Luckily, the show treats its characters with respect, and turns out better than we had any right to expect.
The thing to remember is that Les Miserables isn't exactly an obvious source for a musical either, and the dying prostitutes and general misery there didn't get in the way of the songs. This isn't quite Les Mis - there's nothing as catchy as I Dreamed A Dream or One More Day - but it finds a way to give the soldiers manly, martial numbers and communicate the tension and fear of the times immediately prior to December 7, 1941.
Darius Campbell (yes, the former Pop Idol contestant) plays First Sergeant Warden, the pragmatic, capable and compassionate commander of G Company. It's the Burt Lancaster role, but Campbell looks eerily like a taller Cary Grant. The newbie in the company is Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Robert Lonsdale), a former champion boxer and bugler who has foresworn both after injuring a friend in the ring - much to the disappointment of his new commanders, who were counting on his talents.
Soon, Prewitt's beset by trouble on all sides and serving punishment detail after punishment detail as he stubbornly refuses to fold to the Army's demands on his talents. The only bright spot on his horizon is a prostitute, Lorene (Siubhan Harrison) who has taken a shine to him. Warden, meanwhile, strikes up an affair with his commander's wife, Karen (Rebecca Thornhill) - which could lead to his court-martial.
It's all stirring stuff, and the songs are appropriately moody, heavy on the male voices and light on the tropical paradise angle. A few are genuinely great: Ain't Where I Wanna Be Blues is a kick, and More Than America makes for a rousing pre-interval semi-finale. Whether it's the right story for right now is a bigger question. The compassion towards the average soldier and bubbling fury at their commanders seems perennially relevant, unfortunately, and there's a good deal of nuance in how the army is portrayed and the tragedies it inflicts on its own members. There's even a story thread touching on homophobia. But do we really need another stage show with a full chorus of dancing prostitutes? Aren't there any gripping stories with a more equal division of labour between the sexes? In a post-Book Of Mormon West End, can a musical as sincere and largely serious as this one really prosper? That remains to be seen - but if you're a fan of the more dramatic end of the musical spectrum, this is a good option.
The big question on everyone's lips, however, is more technical. How, they ask, do they manage the iconic roll in the surf? Since it's the only scene most people remember from the 1953 winner of eight Oscars, it seems to matter. The answer is that it's all present and correct, thanks to a smoke machine and some theatre magic. Thank goodness for that.