It’s 4 days before Christmas, the icy cold of winter has kicked in, and there’s a small group of people dressed up as 1920s party-goers stood outside a small alleyway at the side of Superdrug. Any passer-bys, struggling back home with some last minute Christmas shopping, could be forgiven for thinking: “What the hell is going on there?”
It’s a fair question, and the answer may well make their heads spin – this is the starting point for one of Jay Gatsby’s legendary parties, transported from 1920’s New York to 21st century Sheffield. Or, more accurately, the beginning of the Guild Of Misrule’s immersive version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, in which the audience aren’t so much spectators as active participants.
There’s always a danger in these type of productions that the evening may feel more like a murder mystery party than an actual play. With the majority in the audience in fancy dress, at first it’s hard to tell who the actors are – yet, after buying cocktails at the bar, the voice of Nick Carraway fills the room, and we’re immediately whisked away to Long Island. The attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing – every little room has been turned into an extension of Gatsby’s house, and although the aesthetic is more grimy than glamourous, you’re fully pulled into his world.
The fun part of an immersive production is that no two visits will be the same – you could come and see this show multiple times and always have a different experience. It all depends what route you take through the labyrinthine corridors: you could be witnessing Tom Buchanan slapping his poor mistress Myrtle, or be helping a drunken Daisy Buchanan apply her make-up. Cleverly though, the cast ensure that all the audience are gathered together for the important plot points: the first meeting of Carraway and Gatsby, Daisy and Gatsby’s tea party, and the climatic confrontation between Gatsby and Tom.
At other times, you could be dragged off for one-on-one conversations with the cast (who immaculately stay in character throughout). I found myself chatting to Jordan Baker and agreeing to deliver a message to Carraway, before being buttonholed by Tom for a conversation about relationships. You could also be playing cards with Gatsby and Carraway or being taught how to dance the Charleston. It’s all a bit like the old ‘choose your own adventure’ books where the steps you take determine the experience you have.
The cast are all hugely impressive – Tim Grieveson is the perfect Gatsby: charming, easy-going but with a hint of menace just lurking underneath the surface, while Sam Holland imbues his Nick Carraway with a self-deprecating and awkward humour. Hayley Adams’ Daisy has a fragile vulnerability that you fear may crack at any moment, while the aggression of Cornelius Geaney Jnr’s Tom is never very far from the surface. In a “party full of strangers”, these feel like the real people who pull you into their lives.
There’s also a terrific soundtrack which kicks in at just the right moment – from 1920s be-bop jazz and an effective snatch of Otis Redding, right through to more contemporary moments. When Myrtle’s grief-stricken husband George wanders the corridors looking for Gatsby, the sound of Kate Tempest’s Bad Place For A Good Time fills the space, and it’s utterly haunting.
It’s the sort of night you want to come back and experience all over again, and Alex Flanagan Wright has created a world that you can escape into and never want to return from. To paraphrase Jordan Baker, this large party is the most intimate of them all.