The Great Gatsby is an infamous tale of hedonism, debauchery and some of the most deeply shallow people ever created in American literature. While some people raised eyebrows over this burlesque version at Liverpool’s Hope Street Theatre, skilfully directed by Tom Martin, there probably isn’t actually a better story to inject with some sequins, ostrich feathers and the sophisticated glamour that burlesque brings to the stage.
The play opens as it means to go on, with lots of dancing. Decadence is apparent from the outset with beautiful period costumes and shining masques concealing the identities of the revellers from each other, their husbands and wives, and the audience. The choreography is excellent, and the entire cast flawlessly come together as one group. Nick Carraway (Jordan Barkley) crashes into Gatsby’s party clutching his invitation, an event which silences the proceedings immediately. The facelessness of the masked revellers does a good job of creating the sense of disorientation Carraway feels as he is cast adrift in this busy and ever changing world of people, parties and perfidy.
As Barkley narrates the story, his affection of for the infamous Gatsby (Leo Hewitson) is clear. Narration in theatre is always tricky as it can easily sap the pace, but it so key to the Gatsby story, it’s almost impossible to perform an interpretation without it. Martin’s direction has ensured that Barkley’s delivery sits firmly in the reality of the world, while delicately playing with the fourth wall bringing a level of wry wit and sardonicism to Carraway’s bewilderment as he is swept away by the glitz and glamour of his new life.
The burlesque elements of the show are seamlessly woven into the show and, if anything, could be utilised even more to highlight the glamour of Carraway’s adopted environment. Ostrich feather fans and floating sheets give an angelic air to Daisy (Lyndsey Skeaping) on her introduction, while reminding the audience that these are being held by burlesque dancers (Velvet Fox, Meena Helvetia, The Dirti 69) whose use of illusion and concealment mean nothing is ever what it seems. The creation of a table and the notorious bright yellow car are ingenious and add a feeling of smoke and mirrors to the reality of Gatsby’s world.
This production relies heavily on the music and dance elements to give life to the excess and allure of 1920s New York. Between the volume of the music and the effort of the dances, some of the dialogue does become a little quiet in a few places, so some attention could be given to projection of lines and careful articulation.
The story and its values remain firmly in 1922 New York, but this is a retelling for 2022, with contemporary references adding some fun touches and a reinterpretation of characters giving a different twist to an old tale. Skeaping’s Daisy is rounded out to show how overwhelmed she is by her life and the limited choices she has as a wealthy woman during the period. Her manipulative nature is enhanced by the vulnerability Skeaping brings to the character. Hewitson’s Gatsby is also far darker than often portrayed, making it clear that his behaviour, however romantic and gallant he thinks it is, is twisted by delusion and obsession. Daisy’s husband Tom (Tom Martin), also brings a level of vulnerability and helplessness to his role which bring the audience to feeling some level of empathy with his situation, even though it remains impossible to feel sorry for him.
Tom’s mistress, Myrtle (Jessie Turton) and her husband, Wilson (Christopher James) have excellent chemistry and brilliantly personify the working class side of 1920s New York. Turton’s portrayal Myrtle’s disgust with her life and everything around her is wonderful and James shows Wilson’s increasing desperation as her disgust grows very well. Jennifer Morrow’s Jordan Baker captures the snobbery of “well to do” society over the working (“under”) class, and her impatience with any encounters over people she “is better than” gives voice to an attitude which sadly remains today.
Clever use of sound and lights veer the show from dream to nightmare to crushing reality as Carraway’s story propels towards its tragic end. There is good emotional tension between all of the characters, and they all portray a sense of the pressure growing within and around them. The build up is so careful, so precise, that the speed everything eventually comes crashing down around Carraway and his friends is dizzying.
The Great Gatsby is called the Great American Novel for a reason. This is a story which encapsulates American society perfectly in a place and point in time which has become inextricably linked with this story. This show takes everything that works well in this tale and reimagines it for a modern audience. Fitzgerald’s characters are given new life in this brilliant portrayal of American society in the 1920s, demonstrating that unfortunately things haven’t really changed all that much in the last 100 years.
The Great Gatsby is showing at the Hope Street Theatre until 10th July 2022. Tickets are sold out.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 9th July 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★