A Little Life review, Harold Pinter Theatre, London

It’s “rare for a play to be a phenomenon before it even opens”, but A Little Life has managed that, said Sarah Crompton on What’s On Stage. The 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara on which it is based – about a New York lawyer whose life has been destroyed by physical and sexual abuse – is regarded with quasi-religious reverence by some (but as “trauma porn” by its detractors). And theatregoers have leapt at the chance to see Happy Valley’s James Norton on stage. Although not belonging to either fanbase, I was impressed by this long, gruelling adaptation from the acclaimed Belgian director Ivo van Hove. It is “as involving and accurate a depiction of the long-term effects of abuse as you could expect to see” – but I was left wondering “why I would want to delve so deep”. 

The plot follows Jude (played by Norton), an orphaned child who is taken in by Christian monks, then groomed and raped over several years, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian. He escapes at 15 only to fall into the clutches of a sadistic doctor (all the abusers are played by one actor, Elliot Cowan, in a series of “chilling” performances). The play, which shuttles between Jude’s present and his “monstrous past”, has a “ruthless integrity to it”, showing the effects of abuse across a lifetime, with “horrifying repetition” and “plenty of spurting blood” as Jude self-harms. Yet for all the production’s excellent qualities, it is unsatisfying as drama: it seems merely to “wallow” in the horror of “bearing witness” to Jude’s story. 

The core problem, said Sarah Hemming in the FT, is that without the “slow evolution of the 720-page narrative, the story becomes just a “grisly spectacle”: a relentless pile-up of suffering that fails to draw you in emotionally. Jude’s friends, so crucial in providing warmth and balance in the novel, remain sketchy despite the best efforts of fine actors. And notwithstanding Norton’s “exemplary” performance of “honesty and vulnerability”, it feels as if we are not meeting Jude as a person, “just watching him being obliterated”. 

Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June, then Savoy Theatre 4 July-5 August (alittlelifeplay.com). Rating ***