Wilton’s Music Hall feels like the ideal home for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic Gatsby. Despite its faded grandeur and crumbling walls, the building still echoes with the vitality of times gone by, London’s own monument to ‘those gleaming, dazzling parties’ which, like Gatsby’s own mansion, remains standing even when the lights go out. Peter Joucla’s production promises to exploit that congruence to give audiences a taste of the roaring twenties, yet aside from the effects of an abundance of gin, this Great Gatsby leaves a very underwhelming impression indeed.
First things first. It cannot be said loudly or disapprovingly enough that getting actors to shake hands with the front row and enter from the rear of the stalls doth not immersive theatre make. Billed downright misleadingly as an ‘immersive . . . site specific’ imagining of Fitzgerald’s novel, this production is little more than a village hall affair fortunate enough to be in vaguely period surroundings in front of an audience wearing fancy dress. The real shame is that judging from the exuberant atmosphere of the interval, where flappers force ice-cold G&Ts into your hand and wooden floorboards creak under the weight of Charlestoning chaps, the potential for a Gatsby that sweeps you up in the excesses of the age seeps from the walls of Wilton’s. Unfortunately, that atmosphere dissipates as the audience are forced into tightly packed rows of front-facing seats, with the play itself failing to continue the hubbub of the evening beyond its opening number. When more fun is had in the interval than when the actors are on stage, something has gone seriously wrong.
There is a light-heartedness about the production from the off, as the small cast don homogenising specs and harmonise, finger snap and sashay their way through acapella jazz numbers. Later creating the music of the gramophone or the characters at Gatsby’s parties, the chorus is a charming device which goes some way to staging the frivolity of the age with limited resources. Likewise, with the peeling plaster of Wilton’s walls casting pastel hues in the dim light, Lucy Wilkinson’s minimalist design is suitably evocative and the costumes, while not splendid, certainly redolent of the age in a slightly cliched sort of way.
We first meet Daisy, her husband Tom, and their friend Jordan Baker through the eyes of Nick Carraway on a languid spring day. Christopher Brandon instantly reveals Tom’s unlikeable, hardened edge as he greets his visitor, played with an honest awkwardness throughout by Nick Chambers. As the self-assured, successful Jordan Baker, and later as a scene-stealing ageing flapper, Vicki Campbell captures a sense of independence and intelligence, while maintaining enough vulnerability to bring a moral and emotional weight to her later scenes with Nick.
When Gatsby and Daisy set eyes on each other for the first time in five years, we long for the ache of years apart and agony of attraction to pass between them. Yet despite Michael Malarkey’s brooding presence as a striking and silently complex Gatsby, their relationship is all too neat and quick to ever strike to the heart, and as they embrace on the balcony we titter rather than swoon. Kirsty Besterman is never quite beguiling enough as Daisy, and shows little in the way of haughtiness nor the internal struggle that determines the tragic outcome of the stifling showdown between her two admirers.
Although conveying some of Fitzgerald’s most memorable passages through the mouths of actors is always going to present a problem in adaptation, the play feels crippled with too much explication, delivered straight on through poor blocking, and seemingly more concerned with joining the dots of plot than capturing the spirit of the story. Nor are the moments of greatest tension dealt with successfully, and as the second act motors on the weaknesses in the staging become all the more pronounced with multiple clumsy death scenes.
If Fitzgerald’s novel teaches us anything it is that the superficial can only mask the truth for so long, and this production would have been well advised to pay more attention to the relationships and characters at its heart than the frippery in the foyer. Despite some strong performances and a promising, if undelivered, premise, Joucla’s thin adaptation has to take the blame for a production that never fully captures the contradictions of post-war American society that makes The Great Gatsby one of the most celebrated works of the twentieth century.