Photo: Jan Versweyveld

We’ll get this out of the way immediately: A Little Life is a difficult watch. Those familiar with the book will be aware that it explores a number of traumatic themes including child abuse, rape and self-harm; these are not shied away from in this stage adaptation. An information sheet provided upon arrival at the theatre contains both content warnings and links to resources, including contact information for mental health support for those affected by the show.

Hanya Yanagihara’s novel – regarded by many as a masterpiece – is the original source material for this play. It tells the story of four friends based in New York – Jude (Happy Valley’s James Norton), Willem (Bridgerton’s Luke Thompson), JB (It’s A Sin’s Omari Douglas) and Malcolm (Zach Wyatt). With the original text weighing in at comfortably over 700 pages, it was inevitable that some edits would need to be made to adapt this for the stage – even though the running time clocks in at over three and a half hours, there have still been significant edits. So how does this adaptation fare?

This version of events feels like it lacks light and shade. While it’s true that the novel contains many desperately sad moments, there is much more balance – Jude is undoubtedly the main character, but we see a lot more of his three friends and how their relationships change over time. We witness the various successes of their careers, we watch as a warm camaraderie develops over many years. In the stage adaptation, we see far less of Willem and almost nothing of JB or Malcolm; the nuanced codependency of this close-knit quartet is discarded to make way for Jude’s story to be told in full, which is almost relentlessly bleak.

So it’s far from a perfect adaption but what we’re left with still makes for compelling viewing. This is in no small part thanks to an incredible central performance from James Norton; the role of Jude is demanding, unflinching as it is in its depiction of childhood trauma that continues to affect him throughout his adult life. Recent Olivier winner Zubin Varla also impresses with his thoughtful portrayal of Jude’s adopted father Harold. There is intelligent use of video displays throughout, which distort whenever Jude’s pain becomes unbearable; the show is underscored by a string quartet, heightening the dramatic tension at opportune moments.

We left the theatre feeling completely drained – not because the play is incredibly long (that it may be, though it never feels like it’s dragging) but because this is such an emotional and affecting piece of theatre. We don’t think this version of the story strikes the right balance – it focuses too narrowly on Jude’s chilling narrative while largely ignoring the successes and the uplifting camaraderie of his friends – but what remains is a compelling story, beautifully acted and cleverly staged.

GAY TIMES gives A Little Life – 4/5

More information can be found here.