Socialites, sophistication and scandal: the Devonshire Park Theatre this week is a window on the world of The Great Gatsby.
Following Flare Path in August, Eastbourne hosts another launch of a brand new production, and Tuesday night’s premiere was enthusiastically received. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s momentous novel is one of the landmarks in American literature, and Blackeyed Theatre does it full justice here.
The dialogue in Stephen Sharkey’s new adaptation is tart and confident, and the Roaring Twenties period is superbly captured. The whole show is immaculately, exquisitely dressed, and Victoria Spearing’s set gives a rather spare but very stylish framework for the action, with many clever touches.
It isn’t perfect. The single most challenging issue, for Sharkey and the creative team, is the complex early plot. With a cast of just seven, and a flurry of doubling in the opening twenty minutes, the audience – especially those unfamiliar with the story – must have been scrambling to keep up.
Nick Carraway, here as in the novel, is a narrator effectively in conversation with the audience. An outstanding Adam Jowett judges the role perfectly: engaging, low-key and modest, cleverly dressed in unassuming brown against the sharp black-and-white of the socialites around him. Nick, too, has several of Fitzgerald’s most exquisite lines. These, he says, are “privileged glimpses into the human heart”, and yes, we really do feel privileged to share his insight.
It is a sharp contrast with the extravagant lifestyle of those around him – shallow and meretricious, with every action based on opportunism and self-interest. Gatsby and once-and-future lover Daisy are playing poker with tragedy, and their elusive relationship teases the play along: boats against the current, in another of Nick’s cryptic observations.
The company is youthful, but brimming with fine acting ability. Max Roll is a Gatsby who grows on you, emerging in the second half as a strong, almost combative figure, despite his self-doubts. Then his fierce confrontation with Tristan Pate’s brooding and boorish Tom sets the play on fire in a scene of truly electrifying theatre.
Celia Cruwys-Finnegan’s Daisy, delightful in spite of her capricious behaviour, is more sympathetic than in the novel, but she skilfully captures her audience. Both Celia and Celeste De Veazey, who plays Jordan with a nice mix of acid and enigmatic, are recent graduates of the gold-standard Rose Bruford actor-musicianship course, and their talents – and gorgeous singing voices – have full rein here. Indeed, the music – expert direction by Ellie Verkerk – is integral to the show. Lazy, languid cadences invite us into the party, and seduce us into half-believing in Gatsby’s world of rich brokers and cheap relationships. And the whole cast, with baby-grand accompaniment on stage, turns more than once into a full-blast jazz band. Completing the company, Tom Neill and Stacey Ghent are versatile and assured, and both have key roles as the story reaches its shattering climax. From Eastbourne, the show now tours nationally. It is not yet the finished product, but close. There are moments, especially early on, when you fear style over substance, but it is handsomely redeemed in the end. An intelligent, enjoyable show. By Kevin Anderson