The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald adapted for the stage by Peter Joucla
Wilton's Music Hall
There have already been four movies based on Scott Fitzgerald's American novel. An official stage version approved by the author's estate premiered at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 2006 and the same year New York based Elevator Repair Service mounted Gatz, a six-hour plus version that included every word of the text. There has also been an opera commissioned by The Met. Now, with the book out of copyright, London is in for a great helping of Gatsby.
Simon Levy's Guthrie version is due here soon in revised form, Gatz will be at the Noël Coward in June as part of LIFT, there is a new musical version due at the King's Head in August and there is a new Baz Luhrmann film version coming at the end of the year. But first we have this adaptation by Peter Joucla, originally made for his American Drama Group last year and Tour de Force theatre group took it around Europe. Now it is given a celebratory staging in the lovely old music hall in Graces Alley.
First, a confession: I have never read what is often considered the Great American Novel and though I vaguely remember the Robert Redford movie I wasn't hugely impressed by it; maybe I am not sufficiently fascinated by the glitz and glamour of the nouveaux riche. But that's not really relevant. Others can decide how good Joucla is in presenting the novel; I see my job as to tell you how it worked for me as theatre.
It makes an enjoyable evening but I am in two minds as to whether the how successful it is as a play.
The Great Gatsby takes place in 1922 and Wilton's has gone to some effort to create a 1920s theme right through the building with ushers and staff in jazz age suits and dresses, feathers sprouting from head bands, glittering baubles and swishing beads. They invite audiences to dress in period too and the front of the auditorium is arranged with small tables in cabaret style to give the feel of a speak-easy.
The stage setting is backed by what look like beautifully painted pink trompe l'oeil swags, a backing for a perfume advertisement or a fashion photograph of the period (except that with a lighting change I discover they are real) and, as the audience chatter in their seats in this illegal drinking den, suspicious characters with violin cases dash down the aisles and call out to each other; the mob's there among us.
It opens with the cast singing "Them There Eyes". That is a lyric that could connect with an important image in the novel, though it's not explored here. Like some other of the songs that play a big part in this production, it is actually a 1930s tune, but it has the right jazz age feel. They are sung a capella to introduce scenes or when appropriate within them, with nifty dance routines, or as grey silhouettes who change the setting. From Novello's "Her Mother Came Too" to "Doing the Charleston" and "The Best Things in Life are Free" they are all beautifully performed under the coaching of Jeffrey Mayhew. In one number they even give us the first scratch groove as an old 78 goes on the phonograph and repeat a phrase when the needle gets stuck.
These numbers, which almost turn the show into a musical, are delightful; full marks to everyone, but the vigour and high spirits, however appropriate to creating the 20s mood, creates a vibrancy and communication that the play has difficulty matching and the good humour they engender undermines the seriousness of some of the plot. A woman getting slapped and even a murder produce a laugh, which is surely not what Joucla, as director, had intended. Presumably he hoped that the brittle, sophisticated levity of the trappings would strengthen the dramatic moments by their contrast. With cocktails encouraged and a Charleston session to join in in the interval, it is not surprising that some members of the audience were not going to take things seriously.
But the fault also lies in the presentation of the plot not being sufficiently gripping. It is trimmed down to its essentials and we don't get a chance to find out enough about these characters to become much concerned about them. Wilton's is not an easy venue vocally for an actor; you need the same skills as the old music hall artistes to play this space.
Nick Chambers, as the observer who is our channel into the story, and Vicki Campbell as Jordan have it. Their more hedonistic friends, except when playing on the forestage Kirsty Besterman as Daisy, the lost love the mysterious millionaire Gatsby is seeking to reunite with, and Michael Malarkey, otherwise well-cast as Gatsby, are too distant, which takes away from their charisma.
Christopher Brandon plays Tom, Daisy's cheating husband, Madeleine Bowyer his ditzy mistress, Julian Stolzenberg her garage-owning husband and Connor Byrne a sinister underworld figure. There is also an outrageously comic cameo double from Vicki Campbell as the drunk Mrs McKee, whose little dog scuttling across the stage also delighted the audience.
There is plenty of fun here but there is little to suggest why this should be considered a milestone of a story. If you took out the songs would the whole thing become stronger? Or would it fall flat? It would be interesting to see this script given a different emphasis, but meanwhile the whole package makes an enjoyable evening.
If it sounds like something for you, you may have to fight for a ticket for I'm told they are sold out. If they are, get a drink in the bar and put some change in the collecting bucket. It will all help to pay for the vital repairs and improvements to preserve Wilton's for the future.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton