Book, Music and Lyrics: Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans
Director: Linnie Reedman
After a very promising concert try-out streamed from Cadogan Hall in February, Gatsby: A Musical by Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans ends the year with its first fully staged run at Southwark Playhouse with some of the original cast. One of the many shows recovering from a brief Covid-affected run, this female-centric perspective on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much-adapted tale is one of 2021’s success stories.
In 1929 Daisy Buchanan returns to Long Island in search of lost love Jay Gatsby, only to find his once lively house boarded up and no indication what happened to him. Following the trail to Luna Park, Daisy meets speakeasy owner Theodore Woolfe and recounts the story of her time with Gatsby and the fateful summer of 1922 when he came back into her life.
Reedman and Evans’ 2.5-hour production is one of the best musical takes on Gatsby in what is already a crowded marketplace. Yet this version stands apart in its meaningful exploration of love and memory, giving the story three layers – Daisy’s pursuit of the truth in 1929, the familiar re-enacted scenes from seven years before which the creators flesh out, and the lingering effect of the lovers’ fabled first summer together in 1917 – all of which adds richness to the textured characterisation and individual motivation.
What was originally a book written by a man about a glamorous male figure recounted by an admiring male friend, refocuses on the two core female characters whose destinies the men in the story control. What happened to Daisy in the years after the novel are credibly imagined while Reedman and Evans give her a level of indecisive complexity that shapes the story as she is pulled between the life she has and the one she dreams of. And there is a notable moment in the Second Act when Gatsby and Tom square up to one another, both speaking for Daisy and deciding what will happen to her without once asking her opinion.
The writers also give far more space to Myrtle Wilson (a terrific Julie Yammanee) and here she too becomes a commodity to be traded, a mirror of Daisy’s unhappy marriage to a man she soon ceased to love. That Myrtle is transformed from an empty-headed adulteress into a broken woman seeking distraction from her small life at Gatsby’s parties and in the arms of Tom restores considerable dignity to the character giving Gatsby: A Musical its multiple layers and perspectives.
Jodie Steele reprises her role as Daisy and it seems to have been written entirely for her. She shines in the central role, capturing all of her character’s trepidation and anguish in 1929, plagued by the events of years before. She’s sprightlier in 1922, a party girl beloved by all, but Steele charts the slow end of happiness as her love for Gatsby colours everything.
Ross William Wild also returns to the role of Gatsby, a more emotional, passionate figure than even Fitzgerald wrote, trembling constantly for the woman he loves. Bradley Clarkson adds depth to Tom, showing the careless playboy but equally his possessive control of his wife, while the wider cast complement the leads with impressive song and dance performances.
In staging the piece for the first time, Reedman as director trusts the very music that won her concert version much acclaim, opting for just enough props to mark the changing locations and time shifts. Chris Whittaker provides some jazz and Charleston-inspired choreography that works effectively in the Little space at Southwark Playhouse, and with a cast of just 11, most of whom are principals, Reedman balances the storytelling and moments of transition between song and book thoughtfully, ensuring the piece never loses pace or drama.
It could cut a couple of superfluous songs – especially Nick’s late solo – that do little except extend the running time, but what Gatsby: A Musical really needs is space. With the cast wearing microphones to compete with the impressive on-stage band led by Victoria Calver on piano, the speakers in the Little sometimes make the unaccompanied dialogue sound like tannoy announcements while the lyrics in the more complex melodies involving multiple voices are lost in the music. But that’s nothing a bigger room wouldn’t solve and that seems to be where this show is heading. So keep an eye on this one, its run may end in early January but Gatsby: A Musical should have a much longer life yet.
Runs until 8 January 2022