Gatsby:The Musical has returned from The Edinburgh Fringe for a run at Shrewsbury School - Katy Rink reviews this sparkling performance and deems this original, school-born production worthy of the West End.
I'd heard ripples of Gatsby news from the Edinburgh Fringe - stories of Sir Ian McKellen meeting Shrewsbury stars of the show, of sell-out performances and agents circling the cast.
I had to go and see for myself whether a school born jazz musical could add anything to the canon of creative spin offs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel - we all remember Baz Luhrmann’s radiant 2013 film version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Gatsby and Daisy dazzled in Shrewsbury School's new musical 'Gatsby'
Fitzgerald himself will be feeling a frisson in the ether, for this Gatsby is a stunning realisation of his creative intent, in its rippling, jazzy soundworld, in every lovingly translated utterance, in its easy shifts from fragile melancholy to soulful exuberance. His 1925 novel shimmers on stage, a sensual portrait of Jazz Age America. It’s an artistic miracle alright.
Director Helen Brown’s lyrics are scintillating, with genius flourishes: “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you, that’s why they call it a chaser!”. Pay attention to the script, it's pure poetry.
John Moore’s score put the jazz idiom, especially the language of the Blues, at the heart of the show - the cast is obviously immersed in the Jazz Age of 1920s America, it has become a way of life for these youngsters this summer and they are clearly revelling in it!
The death of Myrtle Wilson in the new 'Gatsby: The Musical' at Shrewsbury School
Gorgeous set pieces, pastel perfect costumes and compelling choreography conjure the hedonistic, orgiaistic spirit of the era, with its alluring excesses and sparkling flapper dresses. All that showiness is underpinned by an aching lament for the ceaselessly self-defeating nature of man himself - captured in the beautiful ‘Requiem Aeternam’ which frames the show, returning to haunt us as an echo of our fallen selves.
Daisy’s unworthiness as the object of Gatsby’s devotion, is brilliantly projected in Charlotte Holliday’s furious rendition of ‘Everything’ - sung in passionate rage against Gatsby's irrational expectations. The two are physically contiguous yet worlds apart and we weep for their impossible love. The tonal shift here is expertly carried by the soulful singing of gorgeous Gatsby (Guy Davis).
The transgressive intrusiveness of the lyric 'You want to climb beneath my skin and look out through my eyes....' becomes a beautiful, simple avowal of love on Gatsby's lips. He uses almost her exact words, yet the emotional content shifts into a different dimension. It is awesomely effective presented this way around - the pettishness first, and the declaration second. First we are with Daisy, squirming at the mawkishness of his love, then we are with Gatsby, as we realise that his belief in pure, untainted love is tragically not enough to cut through vice and time.
An intense moment between narrator Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker in Gatsby
The individual performances keep on coming - the show is a vehicle for celebrating talents of the entire company, not just the chosen few and, my goodness, how the youngsters rose to the answer the call. Even minor performances shimmered with class. From Tom Buchanan's snarling ingratitude or Meyer Wolfsheim’s unshakeable self-assurance, to Myrtle's hymn of discontent “Why shouldn’t I be special?”, Jordan Baker's equanimity and Nick Carraway's transatlantic-smooth narration, and Bublé-esque numbers that sit on top of the action like the cream on a white Russian.
Ed Pickersgill’s performance as Nick was the standout for me - as with good design, when it's right, it's right - you don't see the edges. It was as polished as the sequins on a flapper dress and I could have listened to him all night.
At times, the narrative thread might have been clearer (young audience members were a little lost) - but then it's a complex story, and hard enough to follow in print. Like the shattered shards of a brilliant chandelier - perhaps a casualty at one of Gatsby’s famous parties - the songs cast slivers of light upon the classic tale, illuminating key events, and exposing the very souls of its characters.
John Moore’ score gifts some memorable musical numbers which get the audience squarely on board. A former Director of Music at Shrewsbury School (until last year), John has returned this summer season, to take Gatsby to the Fringe - his 10th musical for the school. Seeing him on the keys, MD-ing in the pit is to watch him pour out his love, for the school, for the kids, for the music itself - great buckets of it washing over the stage. He goes all in.
"This one isn't bad," he says modestly, after the show. "There are some good tunes, I'm not sick of them yet."
If there is any justice in the world, if talent will out, then this Gatsby will find its way to Broadway.