Review: Northern Ballet - The Great Gatsby - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 24 - 28 March 2015
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Thursday 26 March 2015

F Scott Fitzgerald’s era-defining novel, The Great Gatsby – which weaves potboiler tragic romance with a sharp-eyed lament for the hollowness of the American Dream – is an ambitious choice for a narrative ballet, given how much of its brilliance is locked into its language. David Nixon’s Northern Ballet version, first performed in 2013, sweeps us elegantly through the story’s scenes, thanks to Jerome Kaplan’s spare but evocative sets and Tim Mitchell’s excellent lighting design (which often conjures an Edward Hopper gloom). But you’d be hard pressed to follow what’s going on without knowing the book (or at least consulting the synopsis) beforehand.

The main problem lies with Gatsby himself. His passions and murky past are sketched out slightly confusingly by flashbacks and prowling shady figures in trilbies. But in the story’s present he feels too ephemeral; we need a magnetic centre to the piece but the choreography doesn’t allow Tobias Batley to assert himself enough and at times he just merges into the melee around him. In the book, Gatsby can be more enigmatic as he’s filtered through the narrator, Nick Carraway, but here Giuliani Contadini’s Nick can’t really fill the gap.

Martha Leebolt’s Daisy – the love of Gatsby’s life – is suitably capricious, dancing up on her toes and being literally tossed between the male protagonists, emphasising rather adroitly that, despite declamations to the contrary, none really values her as more than a bauble. And Kenneth Tindall, albeit oddly dressed to look alarmingly like David Brent, gives Daisy’s cheating husband Tom a disquieting muscular ferociousness. There’s good work, too, from Isaac Lee-Baker as poor George, desperate husband of Tom’s brash mistress Myrtle, who curls himself in agonies of unrequited love around a spare tyre on his garage floor.

The grand set-piece party scenes suffer somewhat from the limited number of dancers on hand to convey bacchanalian excess, and end up looking rather polite, but Howard Bullock’s ballroom instruction pays off handsomely: there’s a spirited Charleston display and a thrilling deconstructed Argentine tango that captures the sexual tension of the dance without using many of its steps. A melange of music by the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett veers jazzily around the era, providing some filmic gloss and the occasional melancholic base-note – although it’s a bit piecemeal, and using the theme from Murder On The Orient Express is slightly distracting.

Overall, then, an attractive work, strongly danced, but one that often feels too caught up in a complicated narrative drive, at the expense of unleashing the big emotions you’d expect from a physical interpretation of Fitzgerald’s words.

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor. She was until recently Arts Editor of Metro and also contributes to Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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