Saturday 19 August 2017

Glad rags, gin slings and Gatsby

Review: The Great Gatsby, Gate Theatre, until September 16

All that jazz: Aoibhèann McCann as Myrtle
All that jazz: Aoibhèann McCann as Myrtle

Maggie Armstrong

If you want to misbehave at the theatre - and those are two words that don't often go together - The Great Gatsby at Dublin's Gate Theatre is for you. If you want to watch a straight play based faithfully on your favourite book, then it probably isn't.

In this immersive-style Gatsby - directed by Alexander Wright, and the first play since Selina Cartmell took over the Dublin theatre - the audience dress as if it's the 1920s and it's gin cocktails all round. But there is so much more to this promenade show than a bit of fancy dress and liquor.

F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel is an exploration of greed, excess, passion, cruelty and selfishness in the roaring 1920s. This production has managed to distil the book's essence and then spray it all over the Gate's hallowed halls.

The central conceit is that you've been invited to one of Jay Gatsby's blowouts. The auditorium is tricked up as Gatsby's ballroom under Ciaran Bagnall's set design and warm, smooth lighting. Picture too many chandeliers, a cocktail bar, a jazz bar, gold ba nisters for dangling over. What used to be the Gate stage becomes Gatsby's grandiose balcony. Seats have been dispensed with. Heavy brass jazz and Isobel Waller-Bridge's melancholic score transport you to this mood-shifting party.

Wright has also adapted the novel, or gutted it for its most dramatic scenes, and sprinkled Fitzgerald's poetry into side shows. Marty Rea makes for an earnest and trustworthy Nick Carraway, the narrator, but no sooner has he led us into privileged West Egg than chaos descends. The actors mingle with the crowd, beckoning you out to give you another bit of show elsewhere in the theatre (almost no holds are barred - backstage, this reviewer was told to "make your way out now, please").

The story, then, is scattered from room to room and you're basically strolling around inside a novel. One moment you're being taught how to dance the Charleston and the next you're playing blackjack with Owen Roe as the gangster Wolfsheim. The atmosphere moves between clamorous fun and eerie intimacy, from cacophony to pin-drop silence.

Paul Mescal is a baby-faced Gatsby and too young to play such a storied character, but there isn't time for it to matter. This multi-talented cast play guitar and piano, sing, dance, and even brawl. Charlene McKenna is raw feminine power as rich girl Daisy Buchanan while Rachel O'Byrne is a charismatic, golf celebrity Jordan Baker; Ger Kelly is show-stealing; Raymond Scannell is intriguing; Kate Gilmore is a charm; and Aoibhèann McCann is a revelation as fun-loving Myrtle.

In costume designer Peter O'Brien's swishing pleats, beaded gowns and one remarkable powder-pink satin suit, there is more eye candy than sordidness in this telling of the novel. But as one character says after tragedy befalls, "What a grotesque thing a rose is." As the Great Gatz might say, 'hope you like it, old sport'.

BOOK IT NOW

1 THE WATER ORCHARD 

Project Arts Centre, Dublin July 18 - 29

Collapsing Horse Theatre Company present this new work - a kaleidoscopic comedy pushing the boundaries of farce and surrealism, as they shout in the winds of change.

2 RED PILL

Theatre Upstairs, Dublin until July 29

A new play, written and performed by Liam Hallahan, is a darkly comic story of a young man's descent into the black heart of the internet, following a betrayal by his closest friend.

3 DIRTBIRDS - LIVE!

Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire July 21

Sue Collins and Sinead Culbert bring their comedy southside. Routines include the South Side Sickeners, as they compete with each other to see who has the smallest Shih Tzu.

Plenty of punchlines - not enough punch

By Katy Hayes

Samuel Beckett meets Flann O'Brien in Roddy Doyle's new play for the Abbey Theatre, with two men in a bar shooting the breeze. Following on from Doyle's very popular Facebook sketches, the comical bar banters are here undercut by the fact that one of the men is going through the traumatic process of watching his 93-year-old father dying in hospital.

The play gives a portrait of how mature men cope with emotional stress and parlay it amongst themselves. It is a tender portrait of male friendship, as their chat strays around local gossip, current affairs, celebs, and death. And it is very funny. The informal bar setting suits the material well. The sound augmentation is deftly handled, maintaining a sense of intimacy, but securing audibility. The show has three acts, with two short intervals, just right for the casual setting and seating.

Director Caitríona McLaughlin judges the emotional ebbs and flows with a sure hand, dextrously steering the more serious material through the gags. Liam Carney's stoicism cracks beautifully and Lorcan Cranitch delivers a delicately nuanced performance.

The play stays safely on the light side of the dramatic spectrum. There is just a hint of class warfare when Carney's character mentions how healthy and well-heeled the young doctors are, how they went to the right schools. He asks Cranitch why they have no doctors or lawyers in their families. "Is it 'cos we're thick?'" Obviously not, they're witty and clever. But the answer does come, "You kind of get used to it." The characters duly note the injustice, then have a pint and move on.

And this is the moral conundrum at the core of Doyle. He has the sense of righteousness that recognises the injustice of a world where rich people's inherited advantage keeps them healthy. But his work doesn't always display the courage to fight it. He signals it, points at it, but reassures his audience with a comforting gag. It would be interesting to see Doyle's immense comedic talents deployed as a proper weapon. Instead, he is in danger of simply being a court jester.

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