NaTasha Yvette Williams
Well, here it is. Trevor Nunn’s musical staging of the Pulitzer Prize winning Margaret Mitchell novel. The book has been read by over 30 million people since being published more than seventy years ago and more people have seen the multi award-winning film than any other movie. But how will it fare on the stage?
Not very well it turns out. What could have been one of the most ambitious and successful West End hits of the year tragically crumbles under the weight of its own ambition.
Set in Georgia, before, during and after the American Civil War, the story as most people know concerns the volatile relationship between Scarlett O?Hara and Rhett Butler.
The production is the work of first time writer, lyricist and composer Margaret Martin. She attempts to pad out the, already narrative-heavy, story with musings on the trials of love, the hardship of war and the ingrained racism of the South. But in trying to say and do so much, she soon loses focus. The audience finds it difficult to concentrate on, or even to care much about, everything they are presented with.
The length doesn’t help: even with substantial cuts having been made during the preview period, the musical still runs at just over three and half hours. The plot becomes little more than a memory test. There is so much narration to cram in the show begins to feel like an extended episode of Book At Bedtime. Perhaps the theatre should provide a designated communal napping area for those members of the audience who are tired of feigning interest.
Martin, who had never written for the stage before, has been incredibly fortunate to land herself in such an astonishing and privileged position. It is puzzling that so much faith and investment, of time, of money, has been put into this work. I suppose that Trevor Nunn, as a revered, though not flawless, director, could have been expected to bring with him a great weight of experience to bolster this new voice. But it hasn’t worked. The story of the novel has simply been shoe-horned onto the stage with little thought as to the needs of theatre.
And what of the score? Though at times weakly written, with lyrics that are occasionally laughably, its biggest sin is that it is so forgettable. The music simply doesn’t have the power to excite or move. It is middle-of-the-road in the very worst way. To be fair, this doesn’t apply to everything: the few songs performed by the black characters are infused with a spiritual, bluesy, gospel air. Jina Burrows and Natasha Yvette Williams, who play Prissy and Mammy respectively, successfully elevate their designated songs into something greater than the material suggests and in turn elevate the production as a whole.
Rather surprisingly, Darius Danesh as Rhett Butler, acquits himself admirably. His hammy antics as a pop star may not been a commercial success but his Rhett combines the perfect blend of stature, tone and egoistic confidence. He has never been more fun to watch. In comparison, Jill Paice is a rather under par Scarlett. But though her voice is not the strongest, it has a certain charm.
The set is also a let down. The demands of the narrative would always be difficult to meet on stage, but this borders on the shoddy. Set-piece after set-piece fail to make much of an impact: Atlanta’s fiery fall, Scarlett’s spectacular struggle towards Tara, or indeed the supposed hundreds lying dead in the streets. None of this convinces or packs any kind of visual or dramatic punch.
Though at times well polished and adequately presented, this is a show that screams of opportunities missed. It’s difficult to think how they could have better approached the material but it’s clear that this was not the way to go about it. There are some very talented people in the cast, but they are done a disservice by the production and long before the end most of the audience were struggling to give a damn.