The Great Gatsby review – intimate immersive show offers heady discombobulation

Arifa Akbar
·4-min read

Last year, in the “before”, The Great Gatsby was reimagined as an immersive show inside Jay Gatsby’s mansion, with the audience as its jazz-age revellers. Now, in the “after” of pandemic lockdown, the adaptation returns in a socially distanced incarnation. But how well can it encapsulate the commotion and decadence of that rollicking party amid London’s tier 2 restrictions?

At first its headiness feels nervy and forced, but the audience interaction and unrehearsed intimacies of immersive theatre are ultimately a welcome antidote, and balm, for our times. We are seated inside the costume party, albeit at a safe distance, and the production gets in motion with song and spectacle in its central, sprawling space, whose shabby chic could easily pass for the inside of Gatsby’s faux Hôtel de Ville home. Even our face masks do not appear out of place amid the masquerade-style subterfuge.

The greater challenge is in capturing the tone and subtlety of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about the illusions of love, marriage, and the American dream. However cherished, it has proved tricky to render in adaptive form and previous attempts have been accused of placing style over substance (Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film extravaganza is a case in point).

This show begins with stylish gimmickry, the opening set a feelgood group charleston, followed by risque “truth-or-dare” drinking games for the audience (“stay standing if you have ever made love in a car”). These ebb away, thankfully, and some of us are picked off and led into antechambers throughout the show: a bright white day-room in which Daisy speaks mournfully of Tom’s infidelities; a dimly-lit drawing room, outside which we hear them having a spat; an oak-panelled library where we witness Gatsby’s anguish about losing Daisy all over again.

These miniature character studies feel a little like interruptions, either too expositional or awkwardly intimate, but they give the production its invention, with “off-stage” noises from the smaller rooms conjuring intrigue in the main. The greater parallel drama continues in the central space all the while, so that the audience, collectively, watches different combinations of the show. There is a symphonic sense to the drama in the main room, too: a scene is sometimes accompanied by a smaller conversation in a corner, as characters engage the audience in seemingly impromptu ways.

The strongest moments come when the cast join together in its music and dance numbers. In fact, this could easily pass as Gatsby: The Cabaret with its low, speakeasy lighting, its mashup of 1920s jazz and contemporary thumping bass and its songs, sung solo at a mic and accompanied by live piano.

Heledd Rees’s costumes shimmer with period glamour and Rachel Sampley’s lighting works gorgeous effects, by turns frenetic and moody, albeit capturing the colourful mania of Gatsby’s parties better, at times, than the more personal interplay between characters.

Alexander Wright, who has both directed and adapted the show, incorporates Nick Carraway’s central narration into the performance, and this delivers much of the lost innocence and poetry of Fitzgerald’s prose, but he also rearranges the order of its parts – the famous last lines come twice, while TJ Eckleburg’s silently moralising eyes at the beginning of Fitzgerald’s book appear towards the end here, after Daisy and Tom’s “carelessness” has smashed up the other characters’ lives.

Not every central character is wholly rendered, and the confrontational meeting between Gatsby and Tom is particularly undercharged, but the cast gels and the story keeps its literary poise, mostly due to Nick’s narration. James Lawrence, as Nick, is preppy and unassuming while Lucinda Turner’s Daisy is a brittle social butterfly, while MJ Lee, as Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, steals the show with her brooding and frustrated ambition.

Set in 1922, there is more than one intervention into our contemporary world: we are encouraged to “spritz” with hand-sanitisers by Daisy as we are led from one room to the next, and the building’s fire alarm is set off accidentally just as she is divulging her marital woes. But all of it feels oddly fitting among the show’s heady discombobulations and we are grateful for the theatrical immersion.