George Hull

Bum deal

Bum deal
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Wilton’s, the crumbly music hall in London’s East End, has been dressed up as a crumbly Prohibition-era speakeasy. And a good job they’ve done of it, what with the bootlegger types in the foyer, foxtrotters on the upstairs landing, and an Irish giant who ushers us into a side chapel where his friend’s corpse is laid out (is that normal in speakeasies?).

The Great Gatsby, adapted by Peter Joucla, is on, too (until 19 May). But this feels like something of a pretext. The speakeasy theme spills into the auditorium and even onstage, in the form of — you’ve been warned — audience participation. To be fair, there is a link with the plot: one of the rumours surrounding Jay Gatsby is that his vast wealth comes from liquor smuggling. In the novel, though, this is a faint underworld odour hovering above the dazzle of Gatsby’s Long Island house parties; while here any glamour is forced to crouch uneasily behind the foreground seediness — a touch of pink in the pleated backcloth, the odd boater, Gatsby’s cream suit.

Nick Chambers (playing Nick Carraway, above, with Jordan Baker) makes the best of the bum hand this adaptation deals him. Gauche and retiring one minute, the next he must be impossibly florid and fluent when a paragraph of Fitzgerald’s narrative turns up in a phone call or (one-sided) conversation. Then what psychological tension does build up is promptly smothered as the cast don plastic comedy specs and sing barbershop songs between scenes — a metamorphosis only Vicki Campbell (as a winningly self-reliant Jordan Baker) really pulls off.