Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd January, 2023
Joe Landry’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel takes place in a New York radio theatre in the 1920s. We meet a troupe of half a dozen actors who will perform the play, taking on all the roles and the sound effects between them. This kind of setting allows the staging of material that would otherwise be too expensive, relying on the audience’s imagination to picture Gatsby’s vast mansion, for example. It also makes the staging of action scenes (the car accident) within reach.
Our host is Freddie Filmore, played by Louis McCoy who, as well as taking on the roles of Gatsby and Wilson is an excellent pianist; Jake Laurents (Thom Stafford, no relation) plays the story’s narrator Nick; Jason Adam brings humour to the role of Tony Hunter, the kind of actor who reads the stage directions as well as the dialogue, playing Tom Buchanan. Gatsby’s love interest is portrayed by Jessica Melia as Sally Applewhite; Terri-Leigh Nevin’s Lana Sherwood gives us an excellent Myrtle Wilson, complete with squeaky Noo Yoik accent; and Charlotte East’s Nellie North adds a touch of class as Jordan Baker. (I hope I’ve got everyone’s names right!)
All six prove their versatility in characterisation and demonstrate exceptional vocal skills. Director Alexandra Whiteley gives us plenty of visuals too in what was in danger of being a rather static affair. To see the cast create highly effective sound effects is a marvel to behold, especially the horse noises of Jessica Melia and the car noises of Charlotte East and Jason Adam.
There is some comedy with Jason Adam’s Tony getting things wrong, and I would have liked more of this tension, the pressure to get things right and not to miss cues. The action is interrupted for commercial breaks, where the cast sing the jingles. Illuminated signs encourage us to applaud when appropriate – not that I need much encouragement.
The second half allows the Fitzgerald to come to the fore for the dramatic and tragic denouement, using the techniques the cast have demonstrated so amusingly in the first, but the whole thing ends on a cheerful note with a joyful Charleston to see us off.
The Crescent’s new season gets off to a fine start with this adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. Stephen Sharkey’s script retains the timbre of Fitzgerald’s prose, mainly in the mouth of our narrator Nick Carraway (John O’Neill). Through Nick’s eyes we visit the partygoing rich of the Twenties, a carefree elite who drink and dance every night away. By sheer coincidence, Nick happens to be renting a property next to the massive mansion of the titular Gatsby, who happens to be an old flame of Nick’s cousin, Daisy, who has since married Tom Buchanan… Gatsby urges Nick to organise a reunion, an event from which tragedy springs.
John O’Neill is a serviceable narrator, handling Fitzgerald’s heady words in a matter-of-fact way. As Gatsby, Guy Houston exudes a suave and easy charm; along with Nick we come to understand the man and his motivations. Colette Nooney’s Daisy is coolly laconic while Laura Poyner’s fiery Myrtle injects passion into the piece. Mark Fletcher’s Tom Buchanan has an air of Clark Gable to him. Kimberley Bradshaw seems perfectly at home in the era as famous golfer, Jordan Baker. All the main players are in fine form, in fact, with strong support from character parts: Jason Timmington’s Treves, for example, and Simon King’s Wolfsheim, who brings a flavour New York into this rarefied atmosphere. James Browning’s George Wilson is a fine characterisation but he needs to lift his head more so we see more than the top of his flat cap.
The play saves all its action until the end as the consequences of the characters’ behaviour burst to the fore. We are amused by these people but kept at a distance from them – in the end, we have only warmed to Nick and Gatsby – and so Fitzgerald’s critique of the in-crowd sinks in its teeth. This is the empty hedonism of Made In Chelsea with dramatic bite.
As ever, production values at the Crescent are strong. The art deco arches that represent Gatsby’s gaff, with their artificially organic elegance, evoke the period as soon as we see them. Keith Harris’s set flows swiftly from each location to the next – there are a lot of scenes and changes are enhanced by Jake Hotchin and Tom Buckby’s lighting design, especially the beautiful work on the cyclorama. Stewart Snape’s costumes fulfil our expectations of the era – Gatsby’s outfits are particularly snazzy – and Jo Thackwray’s choreography gives us all the Charleston moves and black bottoms we could wish for. If I had to nit-pick, I would say at times the music playback needs to be a touch louder, and a crucial sound effect – a car crash – needs to have more impact. It is the turning point of the story, after all.
Director Colin Judges keeps a steady pace, allowing moments of humour to surface like bubbles in champagne. Stylish and elegant, this is a great Gatsby.
John O’Neill narrates while Colette Nooney and Guy Houston catch up. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)