Wilton’s Music Hall, London – until 17 September 2016
In his excellent 2013 biography of Benjamin Britten, Paul Kildea revealed that the composer died young because his heart was infected with tertiary syphilis acquired from long-time lover Peter Pears. This is more interesting than any fact cited in Zoe Lewis’ play but she does convey the feeling of something rotting at the core of all her characters’ existence.
Washed up in wartime, Britten, his friend and romantic obsession W H Auden, the tedious waif-like poet and novelist Carson McCullers, and stripper turned thriller writer Gypsy Rose Lee shared a bohemian squat in a dilapidated row house in Brooklyn Heights from where they tried to influence the US’s entry into the war with pacifist writings and socialite dinner parties.
It might have been interesting in real life, and it could make a better TV movie, but on stage it feels beyond tedious to watch people who are drunk and stupid so very much of the time. There are only two points at which the action becomes livelier – during a Noel Coward-derived party game of sound charades, and when a stranger watches the house and questions the occupants much in the style of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.
With a cast of five, the stage feels underpopulated, particularly as the house tended to be full of people – Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya occupied the first floor back, Gypsy brought an entourage of domestic servants, Britten was pursuing a series of boys as well as maintaining a six-year relationship with Wulff Scherchen who was 13 when they met. Auden was at the height of a passionate relationship with hottie Chester Kallman, his Californian lover turned lifelong companion, and although married, McCullers was having a torrid affair with a German refugee and cabaret artiste Erika Mann. Given such salacious source material, it’s unforgiveable Lewis turned out such a dull play.
Sadie Frost makes a half-decent fist of Gypsy, swaying neatly between coquettishness and the pseudo-intellectualism of her post-burlesque years – and the talented Ryan Sampson gives Britten boyish charm, inner angst and the convincing illusion of being lost in his music, although he is too outwardly fey and at a shade over five feet tall has to play the piano standing up like Jerry Lee Lewis.
Looking like a woman who cuts her own hair, Ruby Bentall is brittle and unvarying as McCullers, but there is little reward for an actor playing a perpetual drunk, a problem that also affects John Hollingworth’s ability to breathe life into Auden who switches from clownish to creepy in an unfortunate homage to Piers Morgan.
Press night was attended by friends and fans of the creatives, including Kate Moss and a Primrose Hill dandy who remarked to one of the ushers at Wilton’s “nice place you’ve got here, be great when it’s finished”.
Could say the same of the play, really.
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