Review: The Great Gatsby, Fleeting Arms

Great Scott: Ollie Tilney as Jay Gatsby and Amie Burns Walker as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Photographs: Chris Mackins
12 Dec 2015 @ 2.44 pm
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The Great Gatsby by The Guild Of Misrule/ The Flanagan Collective, The Fleeting Arms

Till Dec 31

£10–£15

More details and tickets

F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be the defining American novel of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, conjuring up a post-war world of jazz, bootleggers and excess.

It is into this world that the Guild of Misrule and The Flanagan Collective promise to take us, in “a new immersive, theatrical experience” at pop-up hipster hangout The Fleeting Arms.

Upon arrival we are immediately plunged into the world of the show. All of the venue’s windows are blacked out, and a scrawled sign directs us to enter via the fire escape at the rear of the building.

We queue amongst the chimney pots on the roof before a 1920s doorman takes our names and directs us downstairs to the Drugstore.

The pub’s front bar has been transformed into a prohibition-era speakeasy, with old adverts on the walls (cocaine hair tonic anyone?), packing trunks for seats and drinks prices displayed in dollars.

Plunged into the story

Authentic Twenties style is part of the charm of this production
Authentic Twenties style is part of the charm of this production

The impressive set dressing is thorough and absolutely believable. An excited crowd, half of them in 1920s dress, chat and drink cocktails.

The bar staff are all in character, serving drinks from a charmingly random selection of glasses and jars.

A man emerges from the crowd, jumps onto the bar and begins to tell a story. This is Nick Carraway (Michael Lambourne), narrator of Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, and he’s inviting us to follow him to Jay Gatsby’s party.

We are plunged straight into the story and although it takes a few moments to tune into what is happening, we begin to see characters emerging from the crowd.

Jordan Baker (Holly Beasley-Garrigan) sits on the bar drinking a flamboyant cocktail, Tom Buchanan (Thomas Mellar) searches for Daisy (Amie Burns Walker) and here’s Gatsby himself (Oliver Tilner) loudly telling anyone who’ll listen about the new car he’s bought.

Meanwhile George (Phil Grainger) and Myrtle (Hannah Davies) serve drinks, consume drinks and pick over the pieces of their disintegrating marriage.

Music begins, and the cast dance, inviting us all to join in. There are also sporadic songs (accompanied by untuned pub piano) and games of golf.

Powerful performances

Michael Lambourne as narrator Nick Carraway
Michael Lambourne as narrator Nick Carraway

The story reveals itself in fragments, and you need to seek them out. Sometimes information is easy to miss, given the background noise and free flowing nature of the performance.

Upstairs is another beautifully dressed period room, where we eavesdrop on a row between Tom and Myrtle and feel uncomfortably like witnesses when he hits her, then orders us from the room.

In the back room downstairs, Jordan tells us the story of Gatsby and Daisy’s first meeting, using members of the audience to act out the scene.

The stand out performance for me was Hannah Davies’ Myrtle, who veered from the life and soul of the bar to disillusioned and hopeless, the disintegration of her dreams culminating in a moving scene which rendered the audience silent.

The confrontation between Tom and Gatsby was also powerful, and as the story rushes to its conclusion and the characters unravel, the effect is all the more compelling for our having been so closely involved in their stories.

A surprise bonus was finding Myrtle in the ladies’ toilets being given marriage advice by two members of the public! This is an intensive three hours for the actors, but they are absolutely committed.

Original and fascinating

All smiles. But (spoiler alert) it might not end that way…
All smiles. But (spoiler alert) it might not end that way…

The last scene is beautifully atmospheric, with the cast singing a capella as Gatsby’s fate is played out.

The famous words that conclude the novel seem to acquire a new freshness and authenticity. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Guild of Misrule and The Flanagan Collective promise us “a world of jazz, liquor and excess across three floors of dancing and debauchery.”

1920s dress and dancing shoes are recommended, and I’d also add to that, read the book first, leave your inhibitions at home and don’t expect to sit back and watch. I tried to do that at the start, and was shouted at for loitering.

The Great Gatsby is not a conventional linear theatre performance. It’s not even coherent half of the time. You need to actively explore in order to see all of the scenes – get involved, drink the cocktails, dance the Charleston.

For those who throw themselves into it wholeheartedly, it is an original and fascinating experience which left me wanting to re-read the novel and to spend more time in Gatsby’s world.