Gatsby continues at the Union Theatre, London until 30 April.
Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩
Any followers of ITV ‘reality’ show The Only Way is Essex who come along to Ruby in the Dust’s adaptation of Gatsby, a show whose publicity has concentrated on TOWIE alumna Ferne McCann making her theatrical debut, may be disappointed to learn that this is a musical adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel rather than a tale of the tedious docusoap’s MC Gatsby.
On the other hand, this lumpen production reduces the intertwining relationships of households in the lush environs of West Egg, New York, into a series of scenes where bored people with more money than sense sit around talking about romantic liaisons without once showing any degree of self-awareness or even emotional connectedness with one another. Perhaps TOWIE and Made in Chelsea lovers may not feel too out of their depth.
The story of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a man who has as many potential back stories as he has hangers-on willing to recount them, and the relationships he has with his former love Daisy Buchanan, her philandering husband Tom, her outsider cousin Nick and sundry hangers-on is correctly regarded as a classic novel – but its tales of 1920s opulence and gratuitous overspending sit uneasily in a Fringe theatre setting.
Whereas previous iterations of Ruby in the Dust’s adaptation have managed to make a virtue of such a low-budget approach, with designs that implied that the sense of high wealth and partying were built on the shakiest of foundations, designer Kelli White’s work here has none of that subtlety.
The Union Theatre’s awkward, pillared space, which rewards imaginative use but hampers any director who makes a wrong decision, does not fare well in the traverse seating arrangement featured here, which forces the actor-musicians who accompany composer Joe Evans’ piano playing to distribute themselves at opposite ends of the stage.
It thus becomes impossible for the audience to hear all elements of the orchestra at any one time – indeed, at times it feels as if the band and cast have the same problem, with timing issues cropping up throughout. And that is a shame, for some of Evans’ up-tempo Charleston numbers drip with enthusiasm for the era, while the ballad-heavy Act II has its own charming pieces even when the onstage action has ground to a crushing halt.
Similarly, Nick Pack’s choreography at times shows signs of capturing the glories of the Age of Jazz – but more often, is delivered with so many layers of cheese, and with a disappointing lack of precision, that it becomes hard to like. At opposite ends of the spectrum, Mark Townsend (in a succession of supporting roles) dances with grace and precision, while Lewis Rae (as both partygoer Owl Eyes and maitre d’, Henri) plays with a goofy charm that feels tonally out of place.
All that apart, it must be said that McCann – who plays Myrtle, the unctuous Tom’s mistress – acquits herself adequately in her debut, with an engaging huskiness to her singing voice. There too are hints that, with training to increase her vocal stamina, she could deliver a consistent performance that is currently only delivered in fits and starts.
It is a shame that her professional debut has preceded her training, to be sure, but in her favour she exudes confidence and calmness that, especially in some of the more haphazard dance sequences of which she is a part, threatens at times to make her look like the more experienced performer of the lot.
Sadly, the central performances seldom help raise this adaptation to the level of which it ought to be capable. Joanna Brown’s Daisy and Nicolas Fagerberg’s Jay capture the sense of spoilt overgrown children which is but one part of their characters’ appeal – but there is little in the way of reason why outsider Nick Carraway (played as a blank slate who is not without his charms by Blair Robertson) should be so fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous around him. Missing too is the waspish wit of Nick’s fellow outsider Jordan Baker, whom Kate Marlais plays as a Tennessee Williams Southern belle who regrets leaving her lines of great dialogue at home.
The most annoying thing about this disappointing production is that the same musical, by the same director, has worked well in the past. While Ruby in the Dust celebrates ten years of producing theatre, their anniversary revival is a poor reflection on that decade.
Ruby in the Dust’s Gatsby at the Union Theatre – exclusive images