“’Whenever you feel like criticising anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’.”
Fans of The Great Gatsby are being spoilt for choice this year as the passing of the rights of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel into the public domain has led to a number of adaptations hitting the London stage. First up is an immersive adaptation at Wilton’s Music Hall (the 8 hour extravaganza Gatz arrives in June and a musical version plays at the King’s Head in August) and it’s proved to be a canny move as the entire run has sold out before it even opened, apparent testimony to the popularity of the book but I hope there is a swell of affection for Wilton’s at play too as they continue to raise funds for their vitally important reconstruction works.
The palpably atmospheric history of the building lends itself to theatrical exploitation and Peter Joucla’s production makes the most of this from the off. Characters mill about the bar and foyer area and play out little scenes which locate us firmly in prohibition-era New York and escort us into the main theatre which has been bedecked simply but effectively in a sweeping, vaguely Art-Deco inspired design by Lucy Wilkinson. A barbershop chorus starts singing jazz tunes of the era and we’re off in this tale of the enigmatic Gatsby, whose hard-worn pursuit of the woman he loves is slowly poisoned by the decadence of the society around them both. NB This was the final preview performance. Oh, and I haven’t read the book. Yet.
I found the first half to be quite charmingly enjoyable, if a little slow to really engage with my attention. The post-WWI but pre-Great Depression era is evoked well in the louche attitudes of the idle rich who hang out at Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s Long Island mansion – Vicki Campbell’s Jordan a stand-out here – and Nick Chambers’ new arrival, an old school-friend also called Nick, provides a neat outsider’s perspective, albeit as he is slowly seduced into this social whirl. When it emerges that the manor overshadowing Nick’s modest abode is owned by the mysteriously wealthy Gatsby, who holds party after party in the hope of enticing Daisy over to resume their abortive youthful passion, the scene is set for love and money to do battle once again.
But truth be told, I never really felt the intensity of feeling that the story, as it came across to me, demanded. I wanted more persuasive charisma from Michael Malarkey’s Gatsby, more bubbling passion from Kirsty Besterman’s Daisy, only Christopher Brandon’s Tom really expounded the emotional charge I craved. The musical interludes, which recur with regularity throughout with their accomplished harmonies, set the tone at a slightly more whimsical level which, with the occasional cameos from stock 1920s caricatures and a school-party heavy audience with lots of hints of fancy dress, called to mind more of a Bugsy Malone atmosphere.
This would be fine but for the second half which is eminently unsuited to the form. As events take an increasingly tragic turn, Joucla mis-steps horribly with a pair of death scenes that sit most awkwardly in the production. The first introduces an erroneous note of stylised theatricality, paired with a musical outburst that just feels wrong; the second forgoes both of these and fails limply with barely a splash. Thus much of the good work is undone, barely a note of genuine tragedy felt and the consequent ending fudged somewhat. It’s an inauspicious ending which casts an unfair light on most of what has gone before which is appropriately atmospheric, interestingly drawn and gently engaging.