PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance. Not that it matters what I or any of the "real" critics think - the whole run's already sold out.
Joucla's production fills the whole building, with extras wandering the bar and making wise-guy chatter, setting the scene of Prohibition-era New York. On the stage itself the cast form a chorus singing barbershop-style hits of the day, and break out of the chorus as necessary to play their roles. In the first act the story is briskly, if rather clumsily told, but there's an indefinable lack of energy that made it feel like a first preview, not the last. I think the choice and style of musical interlude is to blame: Rather than speed along the scene changes they slow them down instead, sucking any chance of pace out of the show. There's a couple of caricature-ish performances in there as well, and while I wouldn't count Gatsby himself among them, I did wonder at times if Malarkey (fresh out of Million Dollar Quartet) had quite realised he isn't playing Elvis any more. At least Christopher Brandon as Daisy's cheating husband Tom has some nicely timed moments of dry comedy; but Chambers' relationship with Vicki Campbell's Jordan is so underplayed I didn't quite realise they were dating until after they broke up.
In the first act the show is solid if not great, with a couple of undefinable things lacking like the pace, and a tone that doesn't quite match the source novel: I remember it being a lot more melancholy than this, but it must be over 20 years since I read it. Andy though has read it more recently and he also said the book (as well as being a lot less explicit about the characters' motivations) was more about the sadness beneath the party, while the show was intent on giving us the party. Also, an on-theme Partially Obstructed View note - Lucy Wilkinson's set is on two levels, but Joucla blocks much of the action on the lower level, and with Wilton's not having a very steep rake¹ it means from the seats at the back a lot is hard to see. Still, flaws aside the first act has some merits.
Unfortunately after the interval everything goes a bit odd, especially with regard to two of the most badly misjudged death scenes I've seen on stage. There seems to have been a deliberate decision not to use any recorded music or sound effects and this contributes to the problem: The scene where a character gets run over by a stationary car and slowly flung across the stage would have been hard not to get the giggles at in any circumstances; but a car noise might at least have helped it make more sense, and the chorus responds to the death in possibly the most inappropriate way imaginable. Then there's the gun that kills people with a feeble popping sound - some shows have warnings about loud noises, maybe this one should have a warning about the lack of them. I kinda thought one of those toy guns with a flag that says "Bang!" would have been better, at least then the joke would have been deliberate. Oh and I think I've figured out why nobody used the swimming pool all summer: Judging by the completely dry Gatsby who climbs out of it near the end, it doesn't have any water in it.
"Car crash" is too harsh a phrase for a show that does have some positives; unfortunately, given which scene is likely to be the most memorable, it's inevitably the phrase that comes to mind. At the curtain call, the actors who'd been providing atmosphere in the bar also joined the ones on stage, including one dressed as a priest, whom we'd never actually spotted until then. Andy said maybe he was in a deleted scene.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted by Peter Joucla, is booking until the 19th of May at Wilton's Music Hall (returns only.)
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.
¹indeed considering what venue we're talking about I'm not even sure if it is an intentional rake or just subsidence