Sophie Adnitt reviews Gatsby the musical presented by Ruby In The Dust at Southwark Playhouse.
Gatsby the musical
The Little, Southwark Playhouse
After previously appearing as a well-received streamed concert, Ruby in the Dust Theatre’s Gatsby finally gets its full staging at Southwark Playhouse. Boasting a respectable selection of West End names in its cast and a well-known plot of the dark side of the roaring 20s, promising elements are in place. However, with high expectations, the execution leaves something to be desired.
It’s 1929, and Daisy Buchanan, the titular Jay Gatsby’s lost love, has returned to the illegal speakeasy where seven years earlier the events of jazz age classic The Great Gatsby affected the lives of those who were often seen there. Unaware of his fate, Daisy’s narrative flits between 1922 and 1929 to recount what happened and where she hopes to go next. As framing devices go, it’s a little unnecessary and could easily be cut without affecting the rest of the piece, not least because of the confusion it causes in the early scenes as to where we are now. There’s also a rather blunt reference to ‘the pandemic’ – Spanish Flu this time around, but it still induces a wince.
This awkwardness continues through to the staging – admittedly hindered by the limited space of The Little, it nevertheless feels lacklustre, with no short amount of wasted potential in the possible dreamlike nature of moving between the two-time settings. The halting, stilted manner of the dialogue adds to the uncomfortable vibe, often suggesting that lines have been forgotten, or alternatively, more than once is delivered too quickly for newcomers to the story to keep up.
What can be heard does few favours, with characters frequently directed off stage for rather feeble reasons – telephone calls, or simply because they have to leave (they just have to, don’t question it). There are references throughout the script and songs to wings and dreams and both of which being broken, and as a result, the quotes from the original novel never quite gel with the rest.
Gatsby also falls foul to the common enemy of musicals in The Little – creating a decent sound mix is challenging in the confined space. As such, a good chunk of the lyrics (probably pretty vital to follow what’s going on) get lost, drowned out by the otherwise decent band. This is combined with a questionable overuse of microphones during music-less dialogue scenes, and as a result, it sounds like half the cast’s speech is playing back on a gramophone.
These faults don’t mean that the talented cast don’t try their absolute hardest to redeem things. Julie Yammanee prompts real sympathy as the tragic Myrtle, desperately reaching for a lifestyle that’s always out of her reach. Robert Grose’s gangster Woolfe brings effortless suave style to proceedings with an underlying sense of danger, and Freddie Love as Jordan Baker is truly superb – totally at home on stage, a joy to watch and a real star in the making. Oliver Mawdsley as Owl Eyes is a surprise highlight too, totally committed to the performance and with much appreciated great diction.
Jodie Steele is excellent as Daisy, and her voice cannot be faulted, but Linnie Reedman’s book turns her into someone with far more integrity than previous versions. The real tragedy of The Great Gatsby should stem from Daisy’s shallowness and carelessness – this version of her is given too much redemption to still be recognisable.
Ultimately, Gatsby is a disappointing experience. It never quite draws you in and there’s little tension – the scene where Daisy confronts her bullish husband in a hotel room should keep everyone on edge, but here it feels deflated. When the much-discussed Gatsby makes his first appearance, it feels like it should be a big reveal, but he simply just turns up. An eleventh-hour revelation about where Daisy has been all these years should shock, but at that point it’s a struggle to invest. Between its fabulous cast and quality (if overloud) live band, there’s so much that should work here and it’s a real shame that it simply doesn’t.
Overlong and done a great disservice by its technical elements, this Gatsby is hindered by more than just another pandemic
Gatsby the musical runs at Southwark Playhouse until 8 January