…among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…
F Scott Fitzgerald
In the world of Jay Gatsby, nouveau riche, living in the big house on the wrong side of the lake and obsessed with the illusion of the little rich girl, the parties were legendary and full of champagne and stars. Unfortunately, in the stage adaptation by Linnie Reedman currently playing at the Union Theatre, there was whispering but little in the way of joie de vivre or stars.
Good musical theatre is always the culmination of collaboration in many disciplines. There are facets of this production that contain kernels of ideas with merit. However, these ideas have not been developed to fulfil their promise and actually conspire together to create an overwhelmingly unsatisfactory experience.
Given the source of narrative, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the basis of Gatsby should be sound. However, this adaptation, and particularly the change of focus from the neighbour to the underground figure of Wolfsheim, is change for the sake of change and adds little to the narrative or the vision of the piece.
The idea of adding music to the plot is worthy, although adventurous. Sadly, the composition skills of Joe Evans are not showcased here and little of the score remains with the audience after the show. The use of actor musicians to augment the piano player is a tired idea, which only works when the actor musicians are really skilled instrumentalists. Here, in actuality, the instrument playing was uneven at best. The exceptions were a very lyrical duet between piano and cello and Blair Robertson’s work on the saxophone.
The standard of singing was uneven and, too often, disappointing. Lacklustre singing condemns the lacklustre score to obscurity. Too often the lyrics were lost in poor sound design and too often individual singers were not up to the demands made on their voice by the score.
At times, the actors could not be heard either in dialogue or song. This can be easily attributed to the performers’ basic skills but there are other issues involved. The directorial choice was made to present the play in traverse and although, at first glance, the set looked well in its initial shape, playing in the traverse presented problems – voices were not lifted to travel further than the closest actor. There is no amplification of the cast and the accompaniment regularly overpowered the voices.
The speakeasy feel necessary for some of the scenes was simply not achievable in the traverse setting. Intimacy and darkness were abandoned in favour of emphasising posts which obscured vision and playing spaces that were difficult to light. Adding three cabaret tables to the space added nothing to the overall feel of the production – Gatsby, whatever it might be, is not a cabaret.
There was also no attempt to align sound effects with the action in the space; the climactic scene at the end of the play was robbed of its highest effect when the gun is fired at one end of the room and the sound comes feebly from the opposite end. This is a double disappointment – firstly, to the narrative; but also to James Rollison who plays the tragic George Wilson and provides one of the better, more truthful characterizations of the night.
Apart from looking effective in its pre-show state, the set was full of drawbacks. There is a constant moving, backwards and forwards, of chairs and tables. The large number of times that the furniture is moved interrupts the flow of the narrative in a seriously detrimental way. Some of these changes are incorporated in the business of the show; several occasions allow Lewis Rae an opportunity to entertain in one of his many small parts, having already caught the eye and ear in the ensemble numbers. But that is small compensation for an utter lack of dramatic focus or narrative drive.
In a performance marked by mediocrity there are some glimmers of light. One was the exceptional presence of stage newcomer Ferne McCann who could develop, with direction that assisted her performance, into a powerful stage actress. Blair Robertson was another, who struggled manfully to make his character work despite a dull script, an ill-fitting suit and dreary direction.
The light that shone brightest last night though was from the ensemble ranks and belonged to the energetic and committed performance from Samantha Louise Clark. Most of the other performers were entirely miscast or not equal to the demands of the production, notably Nicolas Fagerberg, whose portrayal of the title role made you wonder why anybody cared about him in the slightest.
Praise should also go to Jack Weir who continues his superior work in lighting design in this venue. The lighting of the wall and Gatsby sign was very effective. Frequently, the only thing capable of attracting attention was the mood enhancing lights.
Overall Gatsby is completely misconceived. Interesting kernels of ideas are not developed sufficiently and the piece would benefit from consultation with an experienced dramaturge. Most importantly, there needs to be distance between authorship and direction – great distance.