Review: The Great Gatsby at Wilton’s Music Hall

The Great Gatsby holds a special place in our house for being one of the shorter novels we own (and thus appreciated for not taking up precious shelf space). I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and its short length makes it an ideal candidate for stage adaptation. Everything I’ve seen on twitter about it has been positive, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to see it, but would it live up to the hype?

Photo by Stephanie Wolff

Play: 3 out of 5
Evening out: 4 out of 5 (probably)

This is a revival of the 2012 production and book-ends nicely the renovation of Wilton’s auditorium. The auditorium looks much as it did before, so hasn’t lost any of its rustic charm and its faded grandeur naturally evokes a little of old New Orleans (think the sugar mill Tiana converts in Princess and the Frog). Arriving at Wilton’s the place is lively, loud and packed. The bar’s full to bursting and we stand in the ‘lobby’ finding ourselves in the way of every bit of through traffic.

People in fancy dress mill around, and I have no idea if any of these flappers, gangsters and priests are actors or audience. I know some are actors, and something starts happening in the bar, but over the general din of drinks and chatter I can’t make out what is going on. I hear an announcement that the doors to the auditorium are open and we take our seat, glad to be out of the way and 10 minutes to ‘curtain up’. I say ‘we’, and I do basically mean me and @potoft. The seats fill slowly over the next 20 minutes, making me wonder what I was missing out on in the bar.

The adaptation is faithful to the plot of the book with only a few changes and slight omission, so fans of the book should be left happy, but crucially doesn’t draw out the themes of the book. The acting starts strong with Nick on stage but it soon feels uneven and perhaps tellingly, it is the new members of the cast who are weakest, whereas those returning put in more convincing performances, with Nick Chambers (Nick) and Vicki Campbell (Jordan) deserving particular credit, and Connor Byrne who comes across as a seasoned character actor. Gatsby in contrast lacks any real charisma, which leaves me wondering what’s so great about him.

There are some odd moments in the play, the climax is very disappointing, with Myrtle’s choreographed ‘exit’ feeling at odds with the rest of the play whilst the confrontation between Gatsby and Wilson lacked any real tension and both scenes could easily have occurred offstage to better effect.

It is in the direction the production really falls down. Whilst the temporal setting is clear from the dialogue, costumes, set design and the front of house, the play fails to emphasise the subtext of the novel, one of hypocrisy and the declien of the American Dream. The Great Gatsby’s principal characters have all for one reason or another relocated from the mid-west to the bright lights of New York during the roaring twenties and the play never really challenges what they become by the end. What we end up with is a retelling of the romance between Daisy and Gatsby but little else of merit. Touches like the ‘Wiltones’ acapella serenades as interludes felt  increasingly superfluous as the evening went on, whereas they could have really made the production and their use feels particularly odd when there’s a 1920s band outside in the bar, which could have really injected some period feel to the play.

The limited (financial) scale of the production means that the opulence of Gatsby’s house and parties aren’t able to be depicted beyond members of the cast squeezing through the audience during a party scene. I would have thought that the director would seek to add some impact to the piece by drawing greater parallels between the last decade and the 1920s, two periods of the greatest income inequality of the modern era (see below) for detail. There are two clear examples in the novel of Gatsby being involved in securities fraud, a clear link to the present surelt, one at the end of the book when Nick answers Gatsby’s phone (but not in the script) and the other (which is in the script) when Gatsby first meets Nick and asks:

“[…] You’re selling bonds, aren’t you, old sport?”
“Trying to.”
“Well, this would interest you. It wouldn’t take up much of your time and you might pick up a nice bit of money. It happens to be a rather confidential sort of thing.”

It feels like a wasted opportunity to create a piece of theatre, rather than being a celebration of the more shallow elements of the 1920s and ignoring Fitzgerald’s perspective on the Lost Generation. It’s very pretty, but very shallow, it’s not a bad play, but it’s not as good as the book.

A final note, on the dresscode – a respectable number of the audience had come in fancy dress, but not to such an extent to make you feel out of place if you arrive straight out of work (as I did). This is the East End – wear anything with confidence and it’s either style, irony or both. However, if you have the time, arrive early, get a scotch egg, a drink and soak up the ambience both before and after the play. If you like the idea of getting dressed up with beads, cigarette holder and cloche hat or getting your hair done in a marcel or finger wave you will almost definitely love the Great Gatsby as an evening out but as an adaption of a great 20th century novel about the excesses of a social elite, this fails to hit the mark.


End note

Clearly, we can’t have a post without some data.

My views on the comparisons between the 1920s and the present can be illustrated in three charts below that show respectively the proportion of total US income accrued by the top 10, 1 and 0.1% of earners. You can see clear peaks in the run up to bother the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the credit crisis of the 2000s. In the final chart, you can see how this income is made up and the importance of wealth (through being able to own capital assets) to generate gains and dividends to further increase wealth.

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