Widely regarded as one of its author's finest works, Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel Fiesta (aka The Sun Also Rises) seems in many ways a highly unlikely candidate for a stage adaptation, particularly in a venue as wee as the 100-seater Trafalgar Studio 2. A portrait of the aimless existence of the group of expats dubbed the "Lost Generation" by Gertrude Stein, Hemingway's text is very much a novel of movement as it depicts its hard-drinking, hedonistic characters journeying from Paris to Pamplona for the July fiesta, and stopping off for a spot of fishin' and bromance-bonding in the Spanish countryside along the way; the novel even ends with its central couple still in motion, speeding through Madrid in a taxi. The narrator (and Hemingway-surrogate) Jake Barnes is an American reporter and bullfighting aficionado who observes the antics of the other members of his circle with a certain amount of cynical detachment and critique. Jake is also living out his own problematic romance with an Englishwoman, Brett Ashley, a relationship that's complicated by Jake's impotence (caused by a war wound) and by Brett's promiscuity, which leads her into relationships with Jake's novelist friend Robert Cohn and then with the young bullfighting prodigy Pedro Romero, whom she meets at the fiesta.
Despite the challenges of the novel's content and its location shifts, this isn't the first time that Fiesta has been brought to the stage: the novel was dramatised in a three-and-a-half-hour version at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010 by Elevator Repair Service, the team behind last year's much-acclaimed Great Gatsby adaptation, Gatz. Alex Helfrecht's new version is leaner by contrast, cutting and condensing the novel considerably in order to squeeze the material into a manageable two-hour-ten-minute form. There are significant trims to the plot; the novel's fairly extensive cast is reduced to a quartet; and the action is limited to the two central locations of Paris and Pamplona.
Pitched somewhere between chamber play and cabaret, the production's mode is low-key expressionism, with an emphasis on movement and dance, while Rachel Noël's design provides a canopy of wine glasses that the bibulous characters reflexively reach for throughout. And, most significantly, Helfrecht sets this quintessentially modern novel to the music of modernity. Central to the evening is the accomplished jazz trio Trio Farouche – Paul Silver on sax, Daniel T. Howard on drums and Phil Polecat on double bass – whose contributions give the production a distinctive, sexy ambience that's especially effective in the Paris-set scenes with the characters frequenting bars and cafes. When Josie Taylor's Brett slinks back into the life of Jake (Gideon Turner) it's to a hot jazz beat, and the couple are soon strutting their stuff on the dance floor.
The first half, indeed, is the production's most successful. The Pamplona section feels overdone by contrast, and degenerates into a series of slightly tedious confrontations as the tensions between the characters blow up. What's lacking – and the lack becomes more apparent as the evening progresses – are substitutions for the novel's grace notes, its quieter passages and reflective moments. Initially, it seems that the production is going to use Jake as a narrator-figure – a concept that might have worked well. But that idea is soon abandoned, with the result that Jake's internal conflicts are not rendered vividly enough, and the audience fails to gain the kind of intimacy with the protagonist that the novel achieves so well.
Variously bopping, fighting and fornicating (or attempting to), Helfrecht's quartet of actors – perhaps the sexiest cast to currently be seen on a West End stage – nonetheless contribute striking, physical performances, with Gideon Turner an attractive Jake and Josie Taylor a sensual, witty Brett, Hemingway's archetypal "modern woman," who finds reading Ulysses "fun". Jack Holden as Romero seems a little underused, but Jye Frasca is strong as Robert, and nicely conveys the character's shift from earnestness to absurdity as he falls hard for Brett. The production's absence of interiority and sketchy sense of social context mean that it feels like a gloss on the novel, ultimately. Still, there are enough vibrant and inventive moments to make this a Fiesta worth attending.