Pulling off The Great Gatsby on stage while Baz Luhrmann’s dazzling adaptation is still in memory is a sizable task. Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novella, this is a story of a young man who finds himself dropped in an idyllic corner of Long Island where wealthy socialites and movie stars come to frolic at parties that seemingly never end, all hosted by the enigmatic Jay Gatsby whom the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, soon learns has designs and plans of his own. When we’ve just so recently learnt how to visualise Fitzgerald’s tale, how does a small, rather quaint set sans orchestra compare with that sky full of fireworks?
Pretty well. What is lost in mesmerising landscapes and close-ups is gained many times over in a musically-driven, enthusiastic and tightly-choreographed movement of hustle and poise. Eight actors succeed in establishing an engaging and entertaining sense of rhythm which never leaves one feeling bored enough to check the time. Of the eight, it is Adam Jowett who holds our attention throughout as Nick Carraway, speaking to the audience and guiding us through Gatsby’s nebulous world of gossip, intrigue and hope. Yet as inclined as one may be to pick a star, no-one really takes the show for themselves (though we are treated to plenty of brilliant little moments by each of them). It is as an ensemble that the cast really shines, whether it be in speedily switching from scene to scene to scene, or in keeping up a fast and energetic buzz that makes this a skilfully concise, subtle and detailed piece of drama. You’ll have your favourites, as I did mine, but you would have eaten at a buffet of strong performances that pull you inwards.
It isn’t just the gorgeous costumes, delightfully classy and flashy as they are, that bring out life from an otherwise starkly white and off-putting interior; nor the soft lighting and the excellent set design of minimalist Art Deco chic that nudges one here and there when needed, creating extra dimensions of space and time for the performance to expand outwards. This is, at heart, a victory for the actors who give the audience a relentless and untiring delivery that playfully swings between the bubbling and the intense. Performances confidently fade between those sombre moments of well-played solitary introspection, sung or sneeringly whispered in hushed tones, and the jitterbug dance numbers, each earning smiles and applause in the viewing I saw.
The music deserves greater mention than can be given here. Sound is where the play excels. You may hear almost every actor sing and play some instrument; if you at some point find yourself brought back in your seat given the ecstasy of the performances, then you might quietly acknowledge the tenacity and talent of all those involved who do so much with so little. It would not go amiss to watch it a second time and, eyes shut, simply hear the play and its the implicit symphony of voices: Gatsby’s voice gentle and charming, Tom’s gruff and rich, Jordan’s teasingly sardonic, Wilson’s hurt and gravelly, and Daisy’s, well, like money. Sure, for fans of the novella looking out for their favourite lines, it may sometimes get a touch (and only a touch) hammy but I urge you to keep your sense of scepticism at bay and to allow yourself to be immersed freely in an exquisitely entertaining play and an excellent two hours at the theatre.