2012 has been a bumper year for Fitzgeraldphiles; following a raft of Gatsby adaptations – including the amazing eight-hour Gatz – Save Me is the first of two plays opening in London this month which deal with the writer’s fractious relationship with his wife, Zelda (the second, the one woman show simply entitled Zelda, opens at the Trafalgar Studios later in September). Unfortunately, Spilt Milk’s well-meaning but unsatisfying production sheds little light on the lives of the Jazz Age’s golden couple, and is likely to frustrate both fans of Fitzgerald and those who feel Zelda is a much maligned heroine, written out of her own story by her egotistical husband.
The relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald has long exerted a dark fascination: destroyed by their personal and medical demons, they are the iconic doomed couple. Zelda has become a somewhat unlikely feminist icon: a lively and free-spirited woman whose own creativity was subsumed into her husband’s genius and ego. Caroline af Petersens’ play tries its best to explore this, but is hampered by Nicola Rockhill’s uneven direction, a tendency to jump unnecessarily between time periods and a clunky script that sees its characters deliver speeches at each other rather than having actual conversations.
It’s also not helped that Sherry Newton is rather jarringly physically miscast as Zelda: she lacks the grace and litheness of a woman who, whatever her shortcomings, was accepted as a genuinely talented and dedicated dancer; her rather clumsy physicality renders Zelda’s ambitions to join the Ballets Russes as comically pathetic and delusional, rather than gently misguided. She does well to capture some of the spark of a woman who was, in her youth, universally captivating, and ably conjures her mental unravelling – and her chemistry with Francis Moore is convincing – but she is let down by a play that never seems to get under the skin of who Zelda actually was. It is perhaps the curse of being a woman that marital neglect always seems more benign than the behaviour it provokes, but as the play progresses it becomes harder to sympathise with this increasingly spoiled and whiny woman.
As her spouse, Moore is a little underpowered, and although he has some nice moments, he too is unable to overcome the shortcomings of the writing. He’s also saddled with one of the production’s most bizarre moments, when out of nowhere Fitzgerald inexplicably dresses up as his wife to dance with his chauffeur – is this is supposed to be a rather ham-fisted reference to the fact that Zelda accused her husband of having a gay affair (albeit, as far as I am aware, with Hemingway)? Or is having Zelda interrupt the scene and dress up in her husband’s trousers some comment on their fluid marital roles? Either way, it doesn’t work: the result was a baffled ‘eh?’ from most of the audience. The rest of the cast drift in and out of the action with little to do, though William Harrison-Wallis is fairly sympathetic as the pair’s long-suffering publisher.
The pace is slowed by a series of unnecessary video vignettes which, with one amusing exception aside, add little to the story and extend what is already an over-long production. Emma-Jo Bairstow’s overly fussy set doesn’t help matters, nor does the constant shuffling of tables and chairs between scenes. Ultimately, though, what lets this production down most is a play that is too dazzled by its protagonists to see beyond their tarnished glamour.