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It seems impossible to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel The Great Gatsby without reference to the famous final line – “So we beat on against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.” It’s a beautiful image, with a slippery, elusive meaning. As such, it’s representative of Fitzgerald’s languorous, sensuous prose that takes time to delve into people and the situations in which they find themselves. Although the novel ostensibly deals with the shallow glamour of the Roaring Twenties in America, the author presents a set of well-rounded personalities, centred around the enigmatic, eponymous Jay Gatsby.
If there’s one thing that the creative team at Wilton’s Music Hall get right with their adaptation of this most slippery of novels, it’s in the way that they capture that sensation of being borne back into the past. This hidden gem of a venue, nestled into the backstreets of Aldgate, fits the era to a tee, with its series of connected rooms transformed beautifully into a 1920s club. It’s helped along by the cast and crew of ushers, all decked out in period costume and interacting (at times a little unconvincingly) with the audience before, during and after the show. When I found myself caught in the act of scribbling in my reviewer’s notebook by actor Connor Byrne in the guise of a 20s policeman, I rather dangerously claimed to be a Russian spy. One of the ushers approached a group of men nearby and hinted at the existence of a “secret speakeasy” upstairs serving “exquisite cocktails”, then exhorted them not to tell the cast for fear they’d be too drunk to perform. Atmosphere effectively created, we took our (uncomfortable) seats and prepared to be swept up by the heady glitz of the Roaring Twenties and Gatsby’s never-ending succession of parties.
As it turns out, the sideshow is more engaging than the main event. It’s hard to tell initially what the root of the problem is here. For the most part, the acting is of a more than acceptable standard, if never truly amazing. The script is serviceable but uninspiring, driven for the majority of its duration by a compulsion to spell out characters’ motivations and personality traits. Writer Peter Joucla (who also directed this production) doesn’t seem to place much trust in the audience’s ability to discover characters for ourselves, and very few of them come across as much more than flat, one-note caricatures. But the cast apply themselves with gusto, particularly in the frequent song-and-dance routines, which are performed in Buddy Holly-style spectacles to distinguish them from the main action. They also function as a means of covering up a large number of set changes and are a well-deployed device for showcasing the performers’ talents – perhaps better than the play itself. It made me wish they’d gone the whole hog and turned it into a full-blown musical.
There is some acting of note in the mix. Vicki Campbell, doubling as Jordan and Lucille, provides some top-quality comic relief and, most importantly, seems to inhabit her characters well. Nick Chambers (as Nick) also cuts a likeably earnest everyman figure. Despite a skewed gender balance (only three female actors to eight men), all three women give good performances, including most of the emotional highlights, despite a somewhat shaky start from Eleanor Howell as Daisy. Despite a seven-month break for refurbishment, and a few cast changes, the Wilton’s team have managed to reignite some of the magic of their “last big show”, so it was difficult to put my finger on what wasn’t working.Enter Gatsby (Kyle Redmond-Jones replacing original cast member Michael Malarkey) and suddenly it was clear. Maybe this the sinister yet charming character – the enigma at the heart of this story – is too much of a challenge to portray on stage. Maybe the actor was nervous, or hadn’t had long enough to get to grips with Gatsby in rehearsal. Maybe he was simply miscast. But if there’s one thing Jay Gatsby shouldn’t be, it’s dull. The character here was devoid of allure – the question “Why do you like him?” in the second act became a far more pertinent one than intended – and reduced to an unconvincingly delivered verbal tic; the addition of the words “old sport” to every piece of dialogue that passed Redmond-Jones’ lips sounded horribly unnatural. The lack of sparkle tainted the rest of the production, which was already having to contend with the upcoming Baz Luhrman film in the audience’s imaginations. A number of potentially interesting bits of choreography fell flat in the second half, and the “dramatic” finale was unfortunately anything but. To keep up the required level of tension would require a better script than we were given, and the overall effect was stiff when it could have been electric.
There was much to admire about this production, particularly the immersive elements and musical interludes. It was very heartening to see some of the braver members of the audience being taught the Charleston during the interval, although I don’t know where the cast found so much energy! I would definitely be interested in seeing the majority of the actors in another show, and will make an effort to revisit Wilton’s now that I’ve discovered its charms. It’s just a shame that The Great Gatsby was all surface style and distraction and never truly came to life: proof that all that glitters is not gold.