To mark their 10-year anniversary, Ruby In The Dust have revived their 2012 production of Gatsby. Unlike the attempt at scale in their November production at the Arts Theatre, this has been stripped back to the bare essentials. In using actor-musicians & the intimate surroundings of Southwark’s Union Theatre, Ruby In The Dust have managed to return to something of the previous glory that I experienced when watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream In New Orleans. It is by no means perfect, but in going for atmosphere over grandeur something undoubtedly special is created.
A big issue at the Arts was the relatively small cast being overshadowed by the large area they needed to fill; there is no such problem at the Union. The size of the company is ideal to fit the amount of space available, with the room set up in the traverse (as well as some small tables on one side) the actors come & go as they please, appearing from several different entrances. It does give you the feeling of being invited in to witness the events that unfold. This is enhanced by some of the music being played onstage or at the tables.
There is an original score, by pianist Joe Evans, which seamlessly integrates into the story. I always think that songs in a musical should augment the storytelling so much that it wouldn’t be the same without them, and on the whole Gatsby does this. There is some repetition & the creation of ‘themes’ for some characters, which maybe is a little overdone but does help hold the show together. Jordan & Daisy’s duet (Sophisticated) could probably be dropped; it doesn’t really add anything, and rather takes us away from the main plot. A high point is definitely I Bet He Killed A Man, with wild theories about Gatsby’s character flung forth by the ensemble, all overlapping each other in excitement. It definitely feels like an appropriate introduction to the man. Solo vocals are sometimes a bit drowned out, thanks to the number of instruments & no microphones, but group songs make up for this in their strength.
Visually, the show is stunning. There are some truly beautiful Jazz Age costumes, a particular favourite of mine being the red tasselled number that Emma Whittaker gets to wear. The setting is shady, much like Gatsby himself, and is evocative of the spirit of the age. Whilst the smoke from cigarettes does add to this, it is perhaps too enclosed a space to be inflicting that on the audience.
The cast of thirteen is talented & hard-working, many covering multiple roles throughout. The night I was there they also did a remarkable job staying focused with a particularly disruptive group of people in the audience. Wonderfully, some even tried to get them to be quiet whilst staying completely in character!
Ferne McCann is making her stage debut playing the adulterous & tragic Myrtle Wilson. Whilst she obviously has a good voice on her, it did feel like she is pouting & strutting her way around the stage at times rather than acting – she will also need to work on the accent, as it should really be more specific than generic American.
Jordan is portrayed as fun & bold by Kate Marlais, and Zed Josef is imperious as Tom Buchanan. Joanna Brown brings a relatable sadness to Daisy; married to a quite unpleasant & unfaithful man, but no angel herself. Her relationship with Gatsby (Nicolas Fagerberg) is believable & endearing. Fagerberg himself occasionally lacks some of the charisma you would expect in an enigma like Jay Gatsby, but does make the audience feel sympathetic towards him as he tries to understand what is going on in his life that starts to spiral out of his control. Blair Robertson has a wonderful voice, and is a reassuring presence throughout as Nick.
My verdict? An enjoyable evening in the midst of one of the greatest works of twentieth century literature, with songs and atmosphere aplenty.
Gatsby runs at the Union Theatre until 30 April 2016. Tickets are available online or on 0207 261 9876.