‘There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away ready in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
It is a brave move when a theatre designer agrees to recreate an interactive set for an American classic which demands Hollywood glamour and a hefty budget to go with it. It is an even braver move when (creating for an immersive audience who can scrutinise every detail close up) the brief requires creating the ‘purposeless splendour’ of Jay Gatsby’s house when Gatsby himself is described as ‘a regular Belasco’.
David Belasco was a famous director and theatrical producer of the 1920’s. His notorious set designs introduced a new expectation in terms of naturalism with his exquisite attention to detail being the paramount feature of his work. His demands for accuracy and extravagance matched his personal flamboyance in a way that only the pocket of ‘a Jay Gatsby’ could afford.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella, The Great Gatsby, is iconic for its depiction of the splendour of the Jazz era. The story follows Nick Carraway’s observations of Gatsby whose demise came after ‘he had committed himself to the following of a grail’, flaunting his wealth, paying attention to his ability to ensure nothing is forgotten, and no expense is spared in the pursuit of Daisy Buchanan. Rich with description (the ‘glimmering’ of ‘the world’s fair’ against the ‘dust’ of the ‘valley of ashes’) and poignant in its presentation of the ‘savage frightening dreams’ of America against the ‘grotesque reality’ of those dreams, the source material is ripe for the picking; the lure of lavish sets and the intrigue of auspicious secrets begging to be unwrapped in dark corners.
The Immersive Ensemble in association with the Colab Factory makes a good effort to create this shallow world for us in a gutted carpet warehouse in Long Lane, SE1. And, although not as detailed and opulent as Gatsby might have demanded (or a Punchdrunk budget might have allowed), the artifice of the set design boasted plenty to tempt the explorer off the beaten track.
As we wait in the staging area – both the piano bar and an american drug store veneer for the party-proper, we observed the confused but magical space dripping with filament bulbs, hung manuscript paper and copper piping, not knowing quite what to expect from the immersive evening. Half the audience had followed the invitation request to dress for the era and it made all the difference to the atmosphere that they had. If you can catch the performance, do make the effort to invest in being a part of the evening’s events.
After a mysterious introductory speech from Nick Carraway (the narrator of the novella but not necessarily of the theatre experience), who has been lingering unnoticed in the crowd, we are ushered into a glorious party where the small but quick-tongued cast circulate the guests with chit-chat and ‘pleasant, cheerful snobbery’ before succumbing to the appealing cadence of the recorded ‘orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes’(Fitzgerald). A simple but high energy dance routine forced us to clear the floor and observe from all around and above, if we could snatch prime position on the balconies, before being picked off to converse once again with the flirtatious cast. Unlike the flamboyant Belasco, Gatsby is quietly modest and charming, traits that Max Krupski owned in every ounce of his terrific performance as an observer on the periphery of his parties; on the periphery of Daisy’s current life. He charms us away from the dancing to introduce himself and find out our names before calling out to the crowd that he ‘will be down in a minute, [he’s] just having a drink with’ – and he flatteringly remembers our correct names. Who can resist clinking glasses with Gatsby as he tells you his night is made now that you have arrived?!
Like Nick’s narration of the book, the whole ordeal is very casually shared throughout the evening. There is no rush into the story. And so the shepherding begins and the crowd are siphoned off, some to witness secret trysts, some to share in solicitous gossip and some left behind to learn the charleston routine. Time is but a care for the outside world. As we shift between the main party room and hidden corridors, bedrooms and dens, characters are presented and we fathom their duplicitous secrets before tripping along behind another protagonist to see what they might willingly reveal.
In the sub-rooms of the Gatsby mansion, hired furniture gave a good sense of grandeur in between the heavy black curtains and swathes of gold fabric. Short of performing in a Stately House, there was little option otherwise but there were some lovely details and many period features nonetheless;
my favourite find being the framed mechanical portrait of the tragic yellow car on the wall of Gatsby’s study that we found when exploring the side rooms at leisure after the show-proper had finished. It’s always such a treat to nose around the set at an immersive production.
There are more dance parties, more drinks, more arguments and more rendezvous. We are serenaded by the well tuned voices of various characters who take to the stage, demanding the accompaniment of the subservient (-but why is he at the parties?-) George Wilson, demonstrating a weak and rare nod to the importance of the class divide of this era and story. Wherever we go, we thankfully don’t run the risk of missing much as the story itself doesn’t seem to be unravelling with any haste until we are all ushered back into the main room to witness a significant tea party that surmises the root of many of the tales we have been hearing. And what a relief that we don’t miss it! The sumptuous dance duet between Ivy Corbin (as Daisy) and, the exquisitely cast (have I said that?), Max Krupski (as Gatsby) is the epitome of the weightlessness that Fitzgerald endows on Daisy’s virgin-white dress; devoid of all the effort of this demanding production, the pair climb deftly up to the balcony and slip along the gallery in a nimble, lyrical and romantic chase. This beautiful sequence made the audience’s thrill of chasing characters seem cheap by comparison and, for a moment, we idolise the easiness of their love.
In Act 2 (the drinking, partying and merriment continues through the break), the equally evocative dramatic climax is reached and the use of lighting, sound and music is employed most effectively here to bring forth the trauma without the need for any of that meticulous Belasco naturalism. The company, skilfully, drive the scene forwards at a hurtling pace that can only mean the party is coming to an unstoppable end; our only respite – Samuel Hunt (Wilson)’s beautiful but harrowing lament – defying any release before we are forced to face closure, alongside the characters, longing for the opportunity to tie up all the loose ends from the precariously unravelled stories.
On stage, the characters (except Gatsby who has plenty of source material) and script lack some substance. Although very little happens in the original story, there are layers of patterns and symbolism, themes and subtleties that are woven into Fitzgerald’s writing which become lost in translation. The performance is forced to skip over the charade of the characters’ surface stories to focus almost entirely on the overzealous hints at the not-so-secret secrets behind them. It’s a shame because the cast are a very capable bunch who, at times, have nothing to play beyond the weakly scripted ‘I’m here’ (repeat, repeat, repeat) and the tongue in cheek looks of knowing as another character races through the space with their cohort of snoops. Being asked to constantly ‘reveal’ rather than ‘hide’ their privilege to secrets over such a prolonged time challenges their opportunity to play truthful characters. Having said this, we were privileged to see several understudies (again – yay!) in role and, in particular, Toby Gordon (Tom Buchanan)’s ability to sustain well-informed, one-sided conversations was remarkable. The group’s singing voices were excellent, particularly when in mournful unison at the dramatic conclusion. And what a relief it was to see Holly Beasley-Garrigan get to expose a moment of Jordan’s vulnerability in the final scene, proving that she has such depth as an actress and is not just limited to the being able to play the bawdy and condescending hypocrite that she sustained (so well) for the rest of the evening.
The audience’s involvement was a well played feature of the event, epitomising the spirit of the roaring twenties from the top. We were dressed up to the nines; taught to charleston; complimented at every look and turn; smuggled away into back corridors and dark rooms with all the clandestine secretivity of attending a prohibition speakeasy. The thrill of the chase had us flitting giddily like ‘prosperous‘ ‘moths‘ to the Jazz Age.
The evening was such a lot of fun and I would absolutely recommend it to hip Londoners or trendy tourists looking for a night out. If you don’t know the book, the actors will ensure you know all you need to know before the dramatic climax of the story is most effectively unleashed. If you are a Gatsby enthusiast or literary scholar, leave your expectations at the door and accept the night for what it is: the chance to dress up and party with some very fine actors indeed, old sport.
The run has been extended to December 2018. Tickets available from The Immersive Ensemble but also look out for offers on the Today Tix App as we bagged a bargain.
Do let me know what you thought of the experience, or if you’ve seen or would recommend any other immersive theatre, in the comments below. Thanks for reading.