F.Scott Fitzgerald in London's East End! Classic Novel The Great Gatsby Gets a Music Hall Makeover

30/04/2012 21:40 BST | Updated 30/06/2012 10:12 BST


The Great Gatsby at Wilton's Music Hall. Pic: Michelle Robek

In the crumbling surrounds of a music hall in London's East End, beautiful young creatures in fringed and sequinned flapper dresses are dancing on table tops while dapper gents, who might have emerged from a 1920s copy of Vanity Fair, quaff G&Ts at the bar.

James P. Johnson's The Charleston is playing on what sounds like an old phonograph (but probably isn't) and there is a loud, boisterous air to the evening.

This scene has unfolded off a small cut called Graces Alley, where the inauspicious facade of Wilton's Music Hall, all peeling paintwork and chipped fascia, gives little away.

Running right on the hour I follow a man in a top hat - brass bell clanging in hand to call in smokers and late-comers - through thick, almost soundproof double doors, and into the melee.

Wilton's claims to be the world's oldest surviving music hall, with the original building, an ale house, dating back to 1743 and John Wilton's ornate venue added on in 1858. Having fallen on hard times and operating as a Wesleyan Mission soup kitchen for 70 years it was rescued from the slum clearances of the 1960s and given a grade II heritage listing in 1971.

Reopened as a jobbing musical hall in 1997 the trustees have since set about preserving the building's shabby chic aesthetic, to create something that even in the environs of a city crowded with historic buildings is uniquely evocative of the backstreet gin joints and speakeasies of yesteryear.


Nick (Nick Chambers) and Gatsby (Michael Malarkey). Pic: Michelle Robek

Taking a seat (one of several dozen wooden backed chairs loosely arranged in rows) beneath the high vaulted ceiling I am surrounded by the type of audience one might call 'creative'. Next to me sit the artists Zatorski + Zatorski (Thomas and Angel) whose good-natured conversation and tale of their five-year-old son releasing butterflies at Wilton's during someone's wedding are worth the £10 ticket alone.

Everyone has made an effort to dress the part. There are black-plumed, feathered creations projecting out of hats, waist and dress coats, silver-tipped canes and all manner of stylish outfitting to suit the subject of tonight's production The Great Gatsby.

I feel a little underdressed, but being from a newspaper nobody seems to mind. Journalists are all oafs to our wives and the outside world.

Beneath the centuries old, gorgeously-carved balustrade, director Peter Joucla's show begins with A cappella - an ad jingle about glasses. The singers all wear them too; those thick-rimmed spectacles that bore down on Wilson - the cuckolded sap of a mechanic - from the sinisterly prescient hoarding across from his garage. It is a visual prop that ties the whole production together.

"God sees everything," poor Wilson (Julian Stolzenberg) opines in his derangement, referring to the sign.


Tom Buchanan (Christopher Brandon) and Daisy (Kirsty Besterman). Pic: Michelle Robek

For Fitzgerald's story however the message is crucial, we cannot hide from the truth and riches cannot change the essence of who we are and what we do.

The singers segue effortlessly into actors, Daisy (Kirsty Besterman) and Jordan (Vicki Campbell) reclining on a chaise longue as Fitzgerald's puppyish narrator Nick (Nick Chambers) is introduced.

From here on the great novel unfolds in a few easy steps, the breaks punctuated by more vibrant a cappella, until the denouement when Gatsby meets his swimming pool fate and Nick reflects with those timeless words, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Wilton's Great Gatsby proves a very different fish to the film version and to Fitzgerald's book. While the words and the characters are the same, the tone is something else.

Joucla plays with the comic moments far more and, true to the surroundings, injects a note of brash Vaudevillian esprit. There is an inspired turn by Connor Byrne as Gatsby's shadowy associate Meyer Wolfsheim, and Madeleine Bowyer as the frustrated, unfaithful spouse Myrtle is full of shrill slapstick.

It's all very entertaining; the result an amusing, enjoyable romp through 1920s American high society - any darkness in the plot banished by the exuberant lightness of the acting and direction.

What it loses as a result, though, is a sense of poignancy.


The dramatic interior of the 1858-built music hall

There is no gradual dawning that Daisy Buchanan is a shallow creature, undeserving of Gatsby. I know it from the moment Besterman opens her mouth.

And there is nothing enigmatic about Michael Malarkey's rakish Gatsby, none of the glittering twinkle that Robert Redford brought to the role. This rendering appears no deeper than that of a regular collegiate tennis player.

Instead Joucla's production seems to do the impossible - with the commanding Christopher Brandon turning buffoonish moneybags Tom Buchanan into the most likeable figure in the cast.

It's always interesting seeing a performance that is very different from your expectations, and this one leaves me with an almost inverse view of the characters. Gatsby: Delusional not visionary. Daisy: Stupid instead of naive. Tom: Practical rather than brutish. Nick: Weak in place of faithful.

Perhaps Fitzgerald meant it more like this, an absolute disection of the soulless, money-addled rich - the lot of them, Gatsby included.

Still, I think the stunted romantic in me prefers the idea of Gatsby as heroically flawed - fabulous but doomed to burn out quickly, like those celebratory butterflies the Zatorski boy produced from his pocket to flutter into the grand circle.


The door to Wilton's in Graces Alley. Pic: Gill Allen

What I get at Wilton's, though, is more than the performance on its own. I find in a way I'm part of a living performance that includes the music hall itself, the theatregoers and the past. This is enhanced by the moments of interplay between the actors and the audience, and the seemingly impromptu outbursts of dancing and piano-playing by members of the Wilton's team in the bar and adjoining rooms at the interval.

I leave having witnessed a pretty good pastiche of the Roaring Twenties and a night out in the back streets of London that I doubt you'd find the like of anywhere else.

Like Gatsby himself the place is clawing back the past, trying to recover the irretrievable, and doing so in a way that, valiantly, inspires and delights.

The Great Gatsby is on at Wilton's Music Hall every evening at 7.30pm until 19 May.

For more writing by Martin Newman see