“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past“
So ends The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal 1925 novella (or novel, if you think it’s long enough) of love, hate, hope, disappointment and distant green lights. So too ends the dialogue of Peter Joucla’s 2011 stage adaptation at Wilton’s - although here it isn’t quite the end. A burst of close harmony jazz song preludes and concludes this enjoyable but lightweight production, one of many touches that sparkle but do not fully catch fire. A great thing about attending this production is the atmosphere. Wilton’s is truly an East End gem, its faded Music Hall glory at once quaint and opulent. The bar did not need much transformation to becomea convincing speakeasy, and the audience and venue staff were adorned in spectacular 1920s garb. You even get to have a dance around at the interval - details of which I will not spoil for those who like surprises!
The Great Gatsby holds a place among the great Twentieth Century works of American Literature for a reason. Its story is unsettling - humans failing to learn lessons from history, hoping desperately that their bright new horizon will last, searching for denial of the sinister reality lurking beyond the Golden Twenties’ decadence. Gatsby is a rich bootlegger. He is also symbol for the flawed America Dream, all the more eerie for the modern audience who know that the Second World War was only fourteen years away when Fitzgerald’s 1925 original was published.
Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom live in America’s East Egg. Gatsby lives in the new-monied West Egg across the valley. He throws many parties at his white mansion, despite calling himself a terrible host, and is a legendary figure. Nick, an everyman character training in the bond business, is renting a cottage next to Gatsby. Spending time with old college classmate Tom, Nick learns Tom is having an affair and accompanies him to meet his mistress in New York. The plot is complex, but suffice it to say that Daisy’s old love for Gatsby surfaces and after they meet, all of the relationships involved break apart. Eventually Gatsby is killed by mechanic Wilson, mistakenly believing that the millionaire killed his unfaithful wife. His funeral draws only three attendees and Nick loses respect for the Buchanans.
Considering the imagination lavished upon rival Gatsbys this year - the 8-hour long Gatz, the musical version at the King's Head, not to mention Baz Luhrman’s film - Joucla’s version is on the unadventurous side. This is not necessarily a bad thing; but something feels missing from the grandiose colour of the original. Joucla does not significantly alter Fitzgerald’s plot, although some omissions are made to keep up pace; for example we never see Daisy’s child on stage and Gatsby’s near-deserted funeral receives a swift mention. It's stylish too, the cast all turned out in impeccable 20's garb.
The Twenties a capella vocals and dance which glue the action together are masterfully choreographed, well arranged by Roger Moon and (mostly) in tune. They are a matter of taste, often distracting from the dark meanings beneath the action with their playfulness - although they are brilliant fun and add to the atmosphere. Given the choice to use relatively few stage props, one would expect the characters to be more fully fleshed-out. This can’t quite be said of Daisy or Christopher Brandon’s aptly ‘hulking’ Tom, both giving firey performances. Nick Chambers is brilliantly understated as Nick, highlighting the infectious energy of Vicki Campbell’s Jordan. Conor Byrne as Wolfsheim managed his accent well, sneaking in the German undertones which would have made the 1920s American audience crawl. The magnetic enigma of Gatsby himself was so nearly there; Michael Malarky gave an engaging and suave performance, with a fabulous swagger, but one can’t help feeling he lacked the danger to be believable as the classy gangster he really is.
In this Gatsby, Joucla has captured ‘something of Gatsby’s time and place’ (his stated aim) well, even if that sharp-edged sense of danger is missing. The play suits Wilton’s down to the ground, from pleated curtain backdrop to underground atmosphere. It doesn’t plum the depths of which Fitzgerald’s book is possessed, but it’s a whole lot of fun in the process.