New London Theatre, London WC2
Opened 22 April, 2008

Stage versions, especially musicals, of famous films tend to run at one-third to one-half longer than their celluloid versions. This was one problem facing Trevor Nunn as he set about staging the musical of the 226-minute Gone With The Wind. (Yes, the script is more an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s original novel, but it’s the film that we all know; the anticipatory sniggers I heard before Rhett Butler uttered The Line proved as much.) As of opening night, the show had been trimmed to what would have been three and a half hours if each act had started on time, having lost around half an hour during its preview run. (This is perhaps also why, almost uniquely in my experience of West End musicals, the programme does not include a list of the musical numbers.) So, does the tale of Scarlett O’Hara’s roller-coaster love affair with Rhett Butler in the old South hold a theatre audience’s attention over such a span?
No. More precisely, we don’t know because that isn’t really the tale we get. Adaptrix Margaret Miller has given Mitchell’s novel plenty of affirmative spin, so that on the one hand it is suggested that Scarlett’s various privations lead to her finally Finding Herself (she breaks off the final line of the piece, “Tomorrow is another day”, in order to emphasis it in song, just as her sister-in-law Melanie expires in whispered mid-number), whilst on the other the happy slaves and ex-slaves are happy because they know that “All God’s children were born to be free” and have dignity and aspirations (even young Prissy, who may lie about her knowledge of midwifery but explains in song that she intends to become a teacher, so that’s all right). Oh, whereas the Ku Klux Klan are lionised in the original story, here Rhett discreetly disapproves of them. What with this cop-out affirmation and the pressure to cover so many events (Scarlett’s first husband marches off to the American Civil War about ten seconds before the news arrives of his death) and still leave room for songs, we do not have much chance to settle in with characters and narrative. Nunn’s direction attempts to give the show the dynamic ensemble feel of his previous successes Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, but even compared to such whopping works the sheer amount of stuff here keeps getting in his way.
Jill Paice is a determined Scarlett, mostly free of the shadow of Vivien Leigh, and with an appealing singing voice except when she belts as during the Act One finale (which is possibly the show’s title number; who knows?). Madeleine Worrall is suited to the clean-cut, prim character of Melanie, though as her husband and Scarlett’s unrequited, Ashley Wilkes, Edward Baker-Duly is little more than a pretty face and a well-maintained blond forelock. Darius Danesh brings to the role of Rhett Butler the core of self-belief that has underpinned his career since he came to public notice for being not quite good enough in the first series of TV’s Pop Idol. He knows that acting involves doing things with voice, face and body, and he does them, with diligence and commitment. (I fervently hope Danesh does not kiss in real life as he does onstage, shaking his head back and forth like a dog worrying at a rabbit.) But his commitment does not feel as if it is to the character. It is a bravura, smouldering, rich bass-baritone performance, but a hollow one.
The songs themselves are forgettable in some cases even whilst you listen to them. During the first-act number about the social glitter of Atlanta, I realised that many of the tunes and simplistic lyrics reminded me of musical numbers from The Simpsons, only without the self-awareness. Miller should have fired her lyricist and sent her composer’s score for a second opinion and reworking, except that both lyricist and composer are also Miller. It would be a delight if Ron Hutchinson’s recently-seen comedy about the writing of the screenplay, Moonlight And Magnolias, also moved into the West End in parallel. As for this show, I fear that, as was said of a different war, it will all be over by Christmas.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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