Whenever a well-known book or film receives a musical adaptation, I find it hard not to think of the Simpsons episode featuring the ridiculous Planet of the Apes musical (aka “Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!”) There’s something inherently absurd in taking a tragic tale of futile obsession like The Great Gatsby and having its characters break out into frequent song and dance, then return to their passionate quarreling like nothing happened.
The novel’s inextricable connection with the sights and sounds of the Jazz Age provides a context for this production to work much better than it probably should, however, as a bunch of flappers dancing the Charleston hardly seems out of place at one of Gatsby’s glamorous parties, even if the routines are a little too choreographed to occur plausibly between total strangers.
It’s this sense of Roaring Twenties fun that pervades the production, and is both its greatest asset and its weakness. While all the major plot points are covered with applaudable coherency, the sub-two hour (including interval) running time doesn’t leave much room for the novel’s poignancy and emotional resonance.
That’s a somewhat inevitable side effect of this kind of adaptation, however, and is certainly not the fault of the cast, who are uniformly impressive. Each captures the doubts and hidden desires of their characters with arresting conviction. Matilda Sturridge as the conflicted Daisy is particularly remarkable, not least because this is her stage debut, with just a handful of film and TV credits to her name.
There’s been something of a resurgence of interest in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece recently, with the eight-hour verbatim production Gatz falling on the opposite end of the scale in terms of fealty to the text. Baz Luhrmann’s visually extravagant upcoming film adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, will likely be yet another unique take on this surprisingly malleable tale.
The songs are all original compositions by pianist Joe Evans, and he carries the production with effective (if slight) tunes that alternate between the inner torment of the characters and cheery dance numbers.
It’s worth mentioning that while the play may be set in a sweltering New York summer, I’m not sure it was entirely necessary for the audience to enjoy it in an equally stifling, un-airconditioned room. I’ve no doubt the warmth of the evening played a part, but it might be worth bringing a leaf blower or similar along for comfort’s sake.
Performed at the Kings Head until the 1st September.