Review: Gatsby, Union Theatre

“I’m too old to lie to myself”

Louis Armstrong used to sing ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’ and unfortunately, Ruby in the Dust’s Gatsby hits the floor rather flat-flooted and singularly lacking in any discernible rhythm. The Roaring Twenties that characterise F Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel The Great Gatsby were all about the freedom of jazz, the liberating release of the Charleston, the fizziness of gin rickeys but so little of that spirit is in evidence here, in a production intended to mark 10 years since this company opened their first show here at the Union. 

Bookwriter Linnie Reedman and composer and lyricist Joe Evans first adapted Gatsby a few years back and have retooled the show for this new venue but this new version struggles on a number of counts. The decision to make Jay Gatsby’s compadre Wolfshiem the focal narrating figure as opposed to the novel’s Nick Carraway could have worked if implemented more thoroughly but where as the latter is present at many of the key moments (and thus able to tell us about them), the former isn’t and so neither actor is able to make their character find a satisfactory role in the unfolding of this version of the tale.

More significantly for a piece of musical theatre, there’s never a sense that the role of music has been integrated in any meaningful way into the book. A number of long sequences pass by with nary a song, including several crucially dramatic events where the intensity of feeling feels ripe for musical exploration and more than once, Evans’ score feels like an incidental afterthought, used to cover transitions from one act to the next rather than as a vehicle for telling the story. The cumulative is thus rather underwhelming for a show set at a time of such musical innovation.

It’s not helped by a production that also has its weaknesses. The actor-musician approach results in a very uneven quality of sound both in terms of the music and the singing, the lack of attention to detail in Kelli White’s design is rather exposed in the traverse staging, and constant fades to black in eerie silence interrupt the flow of Reedman’s direction making it increasingly uninvolving. The casting of TOWIE/I’m A Celebrity alumna Ferne McCann in her stage debut might add a certain interest for some people but regardless, these ’20s go with less of a roar and more of a whimper.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Roy Tan
Booking until 30th April

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