Beautiful and Damned

Tuesday, 11 May, 2004
Review by: 
Amanda Hodges

Epitomising all the glamorous hedonism of the Roaring Twenties, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were a legendary couple, but their relationship was notoriously volatile and though both passionate and tender it was also mutually destructive in many respects. Scott represented the voice of a dispossessed generation, his first novel This Side of Paradise catapulting him into a life of sudden wealth and decadence.

From the moment he and southern belle Zelda Sayre had first met in 1918 there 'd been immediate and mutual attraction but the free-spirited Zelda anticipated a life of stimulation and creativity, one where she and Scott could both exercise their artistic gifts. When it transpired that she'd be living perpetually in Scott's shadow, his glittering success eclipsing all her artistic endeavours she began to dramatically unravel and it's this that lies at the heart of Roger Cook and Les Reed's musical- the book provided by Kit Hesketh Harvey. As the show opens, the mature Zelda is living in a mental asylum, past and present beginning to converge as ghostly figures from her Twenties heyday haunt her memory. Time blurs and suddenly Zelda's back in her native Alabama, a flamboyant and reckless girl whose marriage to Fitzgerald disappoints her conservative father.

The musical inhabits controversial territory from this point on because Scott and Zelda's relationship was deeply ambivalent in terms of how one assesses any culpability. Some- - and this is the basis on which this musical hinges- see Scott as largely responsible, or at least instrumental in Zelda's sad fate, her overwhelming frustration driving her mad; others, like the outspoken Ernest Hemingway- convinced Zelda was an exhausting liability who hindered Scott's progress. Probably the truth lies midway between the two. Jettison any real idea of the show as biography and it's easier to accept.

Michael Praed and Helen Anker are great as the charismatic Fitzgralds, Anker in particular outstanding- her strength and conviction as a performer undoubtably the best reason to catch the show. In the supporting cast Susannah Fellows is terrific as Zelda's compassionate mother, Katie Foster-Barnes good too, playing both young Zelda and Scotty, her daughter. Jolyon James makes the very most of his brief scenes as Zelda's lover Edouard and David Burt is particularly effective as Zelda's conservative father, scandalised by the insouciance of the Jazz Age.

It's a strange musical this, one of those occasions where there are many fine things stranded within a rather bland vehicle. Craig Revel Horwood both directs and choreographs with some flair, but essentially the story is just too big and too intricate to be truly effective in this genre.


Production photos by (c) Alastair Muir

Next Review by David Heppell....

According to the marketing spiel, this is based on the “extraordinary lives” of Zelda (Helen Anker) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Michael Praed). However “extraordinary” their lives may have been, they have been translated into a fairly conventional story centred on the love affair between them - in and around the fast lane in the first half of the last century.

This, in itself, would not necessarily have been a bad thing, but so shallow is the presentation of Scott and Zelda (and, indeed, most of the other characters), we never really care about their follies, or their ultimate fates.

The main flaw (in what is supposedly a love story) is that the love between them never really rings true - and neither do his alcoholism, or her mental illness. The story ends up being in places over-dramatised, and in others a sentimental mush - more representative of an American daytime TV soap than a stage musical. Even David Burt, noteworthy as Zelda’s Judge father and the poisonous Ernest Hemmingway, cannot escape the cliché-ridden script.

The songs are passable, but none stand out as noteworthy or memorable (prizes could go to anyone who can hum one of the tunes on the way out), and although the singing is adequate for the task at hand, voices are left largely untaxed.

There are some lively set pieces, with typical Charleston-related dancing, but they are too few and far between to adequately signify the supposedly relentless nature of the partying involved. These stretches threaten to raise the temperature, but they pass so quickly the effect is sadly soon lost.

The set unfortunately adds little; largely uninventive, there is nothing new here. With its distinctly unattractive sliding panels it does make an attempt at the art deco style, albeit a rather gaudy one, but lacks the elegance necessary to impress.

This all sounds a little negative, and is, but over-all its a fairly enjoyable piece if taken for what it is (a small-scale, sentimental, largely inoffensive musical), rather than a serious attempt at Olivier Award glory. It’s only really in analysis that it seems so poor. Okay, so the songs aren’t great, the dancing is unexceptional (on what appears to be a rather cramped stage) and the plot/book is weak - but it is not hideously bad. As a touring or provincial production this would be fine, and a pleasant enough evening’s entertainment; it is only in the setting of the West End that it seems so bland and lightweight.

© David Heppell 2004

What other critics had to say.....
ROBERT HANKS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Fitzgerald musical not beautiful- and must surely be damned." FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Enjoyable"; LYNN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Making the roaring 20s seem like the boring 20s." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Beautiful this show certainly isn't." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "A boring evening." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "Has all the zest of flat champagne."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Independent
The Guardian
Daily Telegraph
Financial Times
The Times

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