F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby has long captured the imagination of artists in all different fields, with adaptations of the story showing up in drama, dance, film, opera, radio and even – as unlikely as it may sound – computer games. Its mixture of heady exuberance and despair has come to define a decade. Ruby In The Dust’s adaptation turns the book into a musical, and the concept is full of promise: the talented Benoit Viellefon and his Orchestra have been recruited to provide the authentic jazz age feel, and Fitzgerald’s lyricism seems perfectly suited to song.
Which is why the resulting two and half hours is so utterly disappointing. This is billed as a ‘showcase performance’, and it’s clear that budgeting and technical restrictions have made their impact on the vision of the piece. Yet this can’t excuse the lack of energy that pervades nearly the whole production. Particularly in Act II, this is a lifeless show that doesn’t make the most of its live musicians, has too high a ratio of dreary ballads to authentic jazz numbers, and misjudges the interpretation of its iconic hero.
The musical numbers fit clunkily into the show: the transitions from dialogue into song are not smooth, and the numbers often don’t fit the mood of the scene they appear in. Benoit Viellefon and his Orchestra should also have been used more effectively to set the atmosphere, as for large swathes of the show the creative team seem to have forgotten this useful tool is at their disposal. That said, the band are on good form and the cast in strong voice, despite some sound issues that mean some performers struggle to be heard above the musicians.
Several of the characters lack the nuance or the passion that Fitzgerald originally endowed them with. As Daisy, Matilda Sturridge seems to have developed a strange habit of making the most important lines the most underpowered, and mopes through the show gaining little sympathy. Opposite her, David Ricardo Pearce’s Gatsby lacks the necessary enigmatic power; while the dialogue repeatedly reflects on the question of “who is this Gatsby?”, it actually seems as if there’s not really much to him. Gatsby is characterised as a ghost, often unseen at his own parties and surrounded by an aura of mystery; yet here it’s Nick Carraway (Sebastian Blunt) who seems the ghostly one, his role of narrator significantly reduced and his character barely making a mark on proceedings.
However, there are some good elements here. Ellie Nunn gives a standout performance as Jordan Parker, exuding confidence and charm and injecting much-needed vitality into her scenes. Simon Bailey is sufficiently arrogant as Tom Buchanan, although he risks becoming cartoonish at times, while Maria Coyne excels in her minor role of Catherine thanks to an impressive vocal performance.
As the show continues it begins to drag, limping towards the finale where the two climactic points fail to bring enough dramatic force. The final couple of scenes feel superfluous; a more fitting end would have been Carraway’s iconic “so we beat on, boats against the current”, whereas here the poetry of Fitzgerald’s own words is undermined by the subsequent underpowered scenes.
With all its potential, this listless adaptation will need a great deal of further development to attain the class and swing needed for this classic tale.
Gatsby is playing at the Arts Theatre until 16 November. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website.