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Zelda

Kelly Burke, from the writings of Zelda Fitzgerald
Charing Cross Hotel
(2011)

Zelda publicity photo

Zelda descends the stairs to greet her audience, "the original flapper" dancing and singing as she leads us through the Charing Cross Hotel. She is bright and teasing, running off forwards and disappearing behind corners before leading us into a hotel room. There's clutter on the dresser, an open suitcase on the bed and self painted pictures on the walls. As we sit, she launches herself into her story.

Zelda Fitzgerald's story is a sad one: having met, fallen in love and married F. Scott Fitzgerald, she became stifled by her husband whose writings were considered superior to hers, even though some of her articles were published under his name. As The Great Gatsby author turned to alcohol and threw himself into his work to cover his debts, she turned to ballet, working herself to exhaustion before being offered a professional debut with a company in Naples. She turned it down, however, and suffered a schizophrenic breakdown for which she was hospitalised and put in clinics for the best part of the rest of her life. The semi-autobiographical novel she wrote in this time, Save Me The Last Waltz, was discouraged and neglected because Fitzgerald felt that their shared experiences were his creative property and appeared in the novel he was writing.

The play isn't all doom and gloom however. Kelly Burke starts as a young and carefree Zelda, climbing on top of tables and throwing herself across the bed as she recalls the days when she was newly married. The vivacious writer and performer tells of the days when the Fitzgeralds partied all day, an infectious smile on her lips and stars in her eyes. Burke is the perfect Zelda: her accent is impeccable, her smile is genuine and her wild and torrid emotions fill the room, never once cracking or seeming false under the scrutiny of the close-up audience.

There is a horrible moment for Zelda as she reads us one of her husband's new short stories. Her smile freezes and her voice falters as we and she realise that these are her words - he used her letters to him to give life to his fictional characters. It's in these moments when Kelly Burke is truly stunning, fixing the smile to her face but letting the pain show through her eyes as Zelda picks herself back up again, telling us and herself that it's flattery to be published unedited, despite being told often enough by her husband that she was a third-rate writer.

The story can be a little difficult to follow at times as Zelda leaps from the present - in her room at Phipps Clinic - and the past frequently, sometimes relating conversations or talking as other people. As Zelda relating a story, the decision to not switch characters for the sake of clarity is the right one, but it does make it easy to lose track of who is talking when there is only a turn of the head or a change of posture to indicate a different speaker.

At just fifty minutes, Zelda feels a little short, but between Burke's brilliant performance and the vivacity of Ché Walker's direction, it is a beautiful play to watch. With a bit more clarity, it would be mesmerising.

Reviewer: Emma Berge