A Little Life review: Four hours of unrelenting misery

James Norton as Jude in A Little Life

A Little Life is an accomplished adaptation propelled by solid performances – but there’s little, if any, enjoyment to be found.

“It’s about pain,” I overheard somebody say, quite accurately, during the interval of A Little Life, the long-awaited stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel.

As those who’ve read the book will know, this is a story about suffering: the lasting scars of physical and sexual childhood abuse, the horrors of domestic violence and rape, the torment inflicted by loved ones upon each other.

For the unfamiliar, A Little Life chronicles the lives of four college friends turned improbably successful New Yorkers: Jude, JB, Willem and Malcolm. But soon enough, it becomes an exploration of the unthinkable abuse Jude has survived, and all the ways it’s left him broken.

Since its publication there’s been endless debate about whether it’s torture porn.

I was on the fence about the book – while it does dwell on the details of Jude’s torment to an uncomfortable degree, it also has some thoughtful meditation on love and friendship.

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There’s something compelling about the imperfect bonds between the core four characters – evidenced by the tote-bag-carrying cult that’s sprung up around them. The play, however, has absolutely no light to counter its shade. At least with a book, you can put it down and come back to it once you’ve rebuilt your fortitude. Here, there’s no escaping how bleak it all is.

Cast set to star in West End adaptation of A Little Life. (Charlie Gray)
The cast of A Little Life: Zach Wyatt (Malcolm), James Norton (Jude), Omari Douglas (JB) and Luke Thompson (Willem). (Charlie Gray)

In adapting the 800-page book into a single play, writers Koen Tachelet and Ivo Van Hove (who also directs) concentrate almost entirely on Jude’s demons, relegating JB and Malcolm especially. It makes for a much blunter narrative: almost four straight hours of unrelenting misery, without any form of resolution, growth or catharsis (as is also true of the book).

It’s certainly an accomplished production. The script cleverly flows from conversation to monologue, unmoored by time or location (the story spans decades, but the actors, set and even costumes remain the same). The performances are uniformly strong: as Jude, James Norton brings range and colour to a character whose sole trait is a lifetime of abuse, no easy task. Omari Douglas is magnetic in the very few scenes where JB is given something to do, and Elliot Cowan is chilling as Jude’s trio of abusers. The staging is minimal; the decision to seat some audience members on stage serves as a needed reminder that you’re watching a fiction. Like the character of Ana, a sort of shoulder angel payed by Nathalie Armin, it gives you something to anchor yourself to.

But while proficient, there is little, if any enjoyment, to be found here. Perhaps fans of the book will be pleased to see the story brought to life by such a talented cast. If you’re intrigued, be prepared: the play contains multiple graphic depictions of self-harm, abuse and rape.

A Little Life is running at Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June and tickets are available from ATG Tickets.

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