02 April 2008

Gone With The Wind - New London Theatre, Saturday 4th April


Oh come on! If you don't have even the vaguest idea, you must have been living under a stone for the last 75 years!

Tension was running high in the auditorium- I think Danni was on the point of hyperventilation and I was desperate for a "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" mug. Him Indoors had dropped his opera glasses down the back of the seat and the party in front were in the wrong row. And then a chap strode onto the stage with a clipboard to make an announcement. A shiver of fear went through me - was Darius off? Thankfully not, but this was the first preview performance and "the show is currently running at about 3 and 3/4 hours, so please bear with us". Hold on to your bladder and ring the babysitter in the interval, basically - to paraphrase Bette Davis - "Tighten your seatbelts because its gonna be a looooooong night" The show eventually finished 4 hours and 5 minutes afterwards! The problem was that this is an adaptation of the book, rather than the film, and what can one possibly leave out without leaving a huge hole in the plot, or the production degenerating into what appears to be a stage version of the film? Essentially, the answer was "nothing" - and they even added a couple of extra bits too. Just like the book, the plot becomes rather laboured in the second half, and its here that I suspect the required cuts will have to be made in order to bring the running time down to an acceptable level. Certainly the scissors could justifiably be taken to the new scene in which Prissy expresses her hopes for the future through literature, also the new scene where the former house-slaves celebrate their new-found (if perplexing) freedom - although this would mean the cutting of what is probably the best, and certainly most memorable, song from the entire score - and possibly Mammy's scene and solo after the death of Bonnie (although again it would mean cutting an excellently written and performed solo).

Whatever possessed Trevor Nunn to direct a musical version of this well-loved book/film is beyond me - by doing this, you are asking for trouble. The last try crashed and burned in the 1970s as spectacularly as Atlanta. Even if you've never read the book, chances are that you will have seen at least some of the 1939 film, be vaguely familiar with it. and feel slightly resentful as a result. Its an epic on the scale of Ben Hur, and 8 times as popular. Many people can quote the film ad nauseam (name no names!) and odd is the Easter Bank Holiday when its not on TV. Its a classic, and you tamper with it at your own risk. Brave is the woman who goes three rounds with the shade of Vivien Leigh, who made the role of Scarlett O'Hara completely her own.

Well, in this bout, Jill Paice carried the awful burden of trying and, even though she may not have won outright, forced a one-all draw. Looking incredibly (and sometimes spookily) like a young VL, Paice appeared spot on in terms of age (SO'H starts the book aged 17) and her first-generation Irish/American accent triumphed over Leigh's pukka, cultured tones. Some of her dialogue inflections and emphases, however, showed clear traces of having been based on those of Leigh. Still, it would have been a very brave actress who gave a "new" SO'H and no doubt there was a large element of giving the audience what they wanted to see. And why not? If it aint broke..... She portrayed SO'H well in all her facets from spoilt child to war-shocked refugee unable to comprehend the destruction of the society of which she was a part to the tired and weary woman. At all times there was a certain "glitter" behind her performance as the remnants of the girl shone through the chinks in the woman's facade.

What I suspect a majority of the audience DID want to see (at least, the large part of the audience composed of females and red-blooded homos) was Darius Danesh as Rhett Butler. He wasnt quite as successful in taking on the ghost of Clark Gable but I was far too busy dribbling to care. The trouble was, I think, that Gable was well into his 40s when the film was released, and Darius is in, I think, his late 20s or early 30s. The Southern American drawl, cultured but lazy, is a particularly difficult accent to maintain, and DD managed this perfectly and with great style. He created a slightly diffident Rhett, and seemed (surprisingly) a little unsure with his vocals on occasion, but scored highly in terms of looks, height and the ability to carry his clothes impeccably. The fact that he spent most of the performance in tight, highwaisted trousers, makings his backside look like a ripe Georgia peach wrapped in a handkerchief only added to his manifold attractions.

Beside two such engaging villains, the roles of Melanie and Ashley become mere puppets and even De Haviland and Howard failed to make much headway with them (although I would opine that De Haviland did at least succeed in fleshing out her role into a reasonably fully-rounded character, which Howard failed to do). Madeleine Worrall seemed to be playing Melanie as a pale version of Little Nell and, as the evening finally started drawing to a close, found myself glancing at my watch and thinking "Oh for crissakes just die, will you?". However, in mitigation, "good" is always difficult to portray on stage, often coming across as "dull". What Worrall failed to do was give us flashes of the steel that Melanie possesses deep within her. Edward Baker-Duly portrayed Ashley as such a morally upright prig that it became difficult to see what Scarlett ever saw in him, and with a posture that often suggested he had a pole up his rectum. The famous "Orchard" scene in which Ashley confesses the destruction of his dreams is integral to the understanding of the character, and Baker-Duly simply threw it away, in my opinion. Not quite so much "Duly" as merely "dully".

Natasha Yvette-Williams had probably been instructed not to play Mammy in the style of the great Hattie McDaniels, and this was a major disappointment. Rather than a comic (yet profoundly touching and lovable) character, this Mammy was rather straight-laced and dignified. OK, the film version is a stereotype, and the current cult of PC would probably disapprove violently with a recreation of this, but the role was written this way for a reason, and provides a much needed counterpoint of earthy realism and (low) comedy to the sometimes strained posturing and agonising of "De Whate Folkses". But Lawdy, Mizz Scarlett, this Mammy could sing. Apparently she has just arrived in the UK from playing the Oprah Winfrey role in The Colour Purple on Broadway, which thought made me yearn to have seen the production.

Prissy too (Jina Burrows) owed far more to RADA than to Georgia, played not as a half-brained moppet (Yeas, Mizz Scarlett, Ah 'speckt ah surely will") but as a reserved and withdrawn young woman, thirsty for the benefits of education. Jacqueline Boatswain as her mother, Dilcey, however, fulfilled all the criteria for the role as it appears in the book, resigned to her role but full of proud dignity.

Of the other minor roles, all Julian Forsyth was missing from his portrayal of Gerald O'Hara was a four-leaved clover and a pot of leprachaun's gold, and such was his dee-diddley-didely Orish Begods and Begorrah missie accent that I half expected him to be accompanied by a troupe of dancers from Riverdance. His wig, resembling a dead lamb, made him look less like a successful plantation owner than a bad Willie Wonka wannabe. As Aunt Pittypat, Susan Turner failed to tick any boxes, coming across as a withered, caustic and half-crazed old spinster rather than a lovable (if infuriating) twittering grown up child. The small but important role of Belle Watling seemed to have been jettisoned from the script - a surprising ommission given its function in the story, and even more surprising when several characters who appear in the book as mere background padding (such as Rene Picard, Fanny Elsing, Honey Wilkes and Dimity Munroe) all made an appearance on stage. Susannah Fellowes portrayed Mrs. O'Hara as a kindly, all forgiving character rather than the proud, humourless woman in the original story (a characterisation largely lost in the film).

With my GWTW anorak on, I have to take exception to Emmie Slatterly's costume. If you read the relevant passage in the book, you will see that there is a very good reason that she is wearing clothes of a very recently introduced fashion when she makes her appearance on the porch at Tara as Mrs. Wilkerson. She should have been wearing a bustled skirt and a "pancake" hat rather than a full crinoline and a leghorn bonnet. Sack the costume designer!

And now we come to the reason why I think this production will get eggs thrown at it by the critics. The music. Apart from one or two snatches, all of this was instantly and utterly forgettable. There were far too many superfluous reprises of naff songs (please, someone, axe "Once Upon a Time"), far too many pointless chorus numbers (such as the Reconstruction Ball), far too many songs in the second half (as opposed to very few in the first), and far too many songs which replaced perfectly acceptable (and, indeed great) dialogue. What was also missing was one single, unifying theme along the lines of Dah daaah da daaaaaah, dah daaaaaah da daaah, da DAAAAAAAA da daaaa daaaaa to cement the whole thing together, variations of which punctuate the entire film and echo through your head every time you read the book. Underscore Scarlett's famous "As God is my witness" or "Tomorrow is another day" speeches with this and you grab the audience by the balls and heartstrings and bring them cheering to their feet. Lose it, replace it with a forgettable and trite song and you blow the emotional content completely. All epic stories need an epic score, and this wasnt one. How Margaret Martin thought she was capable of this (its her first score) beggars belief. One just wonders who she slept with. Its like going to a couple of Creative Writing lessons and believing you can re-write the Bible (or, indeed, Gone with the Wind). Amazing.

It sounds as if I really loathed this show. I didn't, and neither did I set out willing it to fail - in fact, quite the reverse. The first half passed in a flash, and neither Danni nor I could believe that over 1 1/2 hours had already gone by the interval. But the second half just felt as leaden and flat as a flan in a cupboard, and not even the sight of Darius performing to a dummy Bonnie Blue Butler (stage timing regulations having meant that the child actor had long gone home) could lessen the pain. For that, it would have had to have been Darius taking his ruffled front shirt off and smearing baby oil all over his torso.

Essentially, therefore, the evening turned out to be "an experience" rather than wholly enjoyable. Perhaps perfection should never be tampered with. But in Mr. Danesh's case, I might just make an exception.

What the critics thought:






Anonymous said...

Perfect review and I completely agree. although they could have livened up the second half with some tap dancing.
I also think that they should just cut the music all together and make it a 'straight' play, although I'm not sure how the marketing team would feel about redoing all the posters.
And, as god is my witness, I will get you one of those mugs somehow!

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the review but I absolutely enjoyed every moment of the show (as did my husband). We were so glad that we were able to see all the show in its entirety before the cuts - I suppose some of the african songs could be cut but these seemed to get the most applause. Darius was brilliant as Rhett, showing passion and excitement and Jill was a lovely Scarlett (almost as good as Vivien Leigh, but in my opinion no-one could be!). It was an altogether brilliant show and my husband has promised to take me again very soon!