Gatsby: The Musical, Southwark Playhouse

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Rating: 3 out of 5.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby was first published nearly 100 years ago yet it still continues to inspire modern adaptations and interpretations. Here, we see Daisy Buchannan (Jodie Steele) return to New York seven years after the events of the book and tell her story to Speakeasy owner (and former friend of Gatsby) Woolfe (Robert Grose).

There are good questions to be asked about why we keep returning to this text and what we expect to find there. The original tale is one of the corruption of glamour and the amoral behaviour of the idle, partying rich. Daisy and her husband Tom (here brought to life in standout performance by Bradley Clarkson) are described in the book with gentle viciousness as “careless people” who smash things up and then retreat into their money. But too often, audiences and theatre makers are seduced by the glamourous side of the tale – the morality seems often incidental at best.

While I wouldn’t say that is wholly true here, the moral behind the story is clouded somewhat. The framing of Daisy looking back without knowledge of the outcome seems entirely designed to rehabilitate her as a character, but I didn’t get a sense of why that choice had been made. The glamour was still eclipsing the morality somewhat.

My other question about staging Gatsby is that very little happens in the story until everything happens at once. This leads to a first half that stretches a little thin, with much establishing of the relationships and almost no action beyond that. This is followed by a frenetic second half that is almost too action packed, and where each incident is barely allowed to breathe before the next piles on. This may be an inevitability of the source material, but I would have liked to have seen a little more thought put into how to handle it.

Finally, we come to the central character himself. The truth is that Gatsby (Ross William Wild) is more interesting in his story than in his action. So while he is the eponymous character there isn’t a great deal for him to do. This is exemplified starkly here in the fact that we don’t actually meet him until about 30 minutes in, but when we do, it is not a bombshell moment. He chases Daisy and wins her. It is sweet and romantic but it doesn’t rock the dramatic world. Here, his backstory is barely mentioned – only through allusions to his relationship with Woolfe and accusations from Tom. So all we get is the rather drippy romantic without the interesting substance that make him such an enduring figure.

For me, the performance of the night came from Freddie Love as Jordan Baker. Jordan too is an underserved character in the novel so to see her come to life and continually draw the eye and attention was interesting. Her role in the novel and musical was to show a comparison between both her lackluster affair with Nick Carraway (Luke Bayer) and the love they both have for the central protagonists’ Gatsby and Daisy. The dynamic between Daisy and Jordan was fierce, sexual, and compelling. It seemed by far the strongest connection of the evening.

The music is lovely throughout. While there isn’t a standout song I am humming the next day, I felt that it charmingly epitomised the jazz age and the romance and longing that is the emotional heart of the tale. However, there were some problems with the mix. Having a live band was sublime and I would not want to change that. But all too often, they drowned out the singers somewhat. Equally, not all of the singers were that clear so the words were often lost.

All in all, this is a fun if somewhat frothy night out. It treats the source material more as romantic romp than caustic social commentary, but in doing so, while it loses some of its edge, it retains the romance and charm of the best of Scott Fitzgerald.

Gatsby is on until 8 January 2022 https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show-whats-on/gatsby/

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