Gatsby – Union Theatre, London

Book: Linnie Reedman
Music and Lyrics: Joe Evans
Director: Linnie Reedman
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright

A single chandelier hangs from the ceiling, the Union Theatre’s girders are decorated with flowers, twisting around the steel, and a few lucky audience members get to sit at tables at one end of the oblong space. At the other end are the famous eyes of the billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, watching over everything, seemingly having little effect on the moral behaviour of the characters below. The Ensemble sings The Prologue, which captures perfectly the hedonism of post-war, pre-Crash America in the 1920s: Don’t take a chance on reaching paradise in the next life, start building a ladder to the stars in this life. It’s an uplifting number, but, like that other imaginary ladder in the world of property, what counts more than dreams or love in this story is money.

By the end, after violent death has broken the spell of this gilded world, the sturdy, steady Nick Carraway (played by Blair Robertson) delivers his own judgement on Tom and Daisy Buchanan: They smash things up and then “retreat into their money.” Daisy herself could be speaking for her class when she says, “We’re careless people, always ready to move on.” This candid admission betrays a weakness in the story. Despite the impressive adaptation from the novel (book by Linnie Reedman and music and lyrics by Joe Evans) and spirited performances from the entire ensemble, in the end we don’t care enough about the characters and are only too happy to move on ourselves.

As in the novel, Nick himself is never really part of this world (although he can afford to live next door to Gatsby). Far more intriguing is the shady character of Wolfshiem, played with dark appeal by Paul Dubois, who turns out to be much more than just a second narrative voice. At first, he’s the hirsute bar owner who knows everyone, who’s one step removed from the clean-shaven men who make the money, who prefers life in the shadows. Then we discover he fixed the World Series in 1919 and transformed a penniless James Gatz into the millionaire Jay Gatsby. Frustratingly, we don’t learn how.

Wolfshiem’s not wrong when he says “it always comes down to a beautiful woman” and there’s no shortage in a social whirl where debutantes compete to bag the best (i.e. richest) husband. We first see Daisy (Joanna Brown) in a wedding dress, unhappily marrying Tom Buchanan (Zed Josef). Together with Jordan Baker (Kate Marlais) she sings Sophisticated. Beauty and vitality are a ticket to society, and “the best thing a girl can be is a beautiful fool.” Even then, however, before they had the vote, there were women who did not want to be defined simply by whom they married. Baker herself is a golfer, for example, a sportswoman, and again, like Wolfshiem, she is a more intriguing character whose story largely remains untold.

From Daisy and her $350,000 string of pearls, and from the high squeak of New York party girls, we switch to the blue-collar huskiness of Ferne McCann’s Myrtle Wilson. For Seize the Day, she grabs an oily rag and wipes down the petrol pump at her husband’s garage. She lives up to her lyrics and seizes her man, Daisy’s husband. She wants to know (her next song is You Can’t Live Forever), “When will I be Mrs Buchanan?” There’s real passion here, and not just gold-digging greed. Why shouldn’t she want to escape her dull and violent husband? If only Tom and Daisy could get divorced…

Nicolas Fagerberg is tall and every inch the entitled Jay Gatsby, a man “who throws great parties” and yet who carries an air of beguiling mystery that sets him at odds with and aloof from the frivolity around him. Super confident and cool in his stylish suits, we know something’s up when he’s as nervous as a little boy meeting Daisy at Nick’s house. There’s history here, and he doesn’t know whether she still has feelings for him. That question is soon answered, but their future together is not so easily resolved.

At one point Wolfshiem leaves Nick and Gatsby alone to “talk about women and cars.” It’s possible we could be bowled over by a musical about hedge fund bankers who watch Top Gear and chase women (especially if produced by Ruby In The Dust), but this is one of those stories that probably needs to remain somewhat dated if it’s to retain any power. The love story is universal, of course, and this production does capture the period very well, with zesty choreography and glamorous flapper dresses taking us back to another age.

Running until 30 April 2016 | Image: Roy Tan

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