The title of this well-known story by Margaret Mitchell sounds more like a bye-line from an ad for anti-flatulence medicine that these days get aired with embarrassing regularity on TV. The similarity doesn't quite end there because there's enough hot air in this story to fill a balloon and float twice round the planet at least. Margaret Mitchell certainly gave readers value for money when she wrote the novel back in the 1920s. At over 1,000 pages it's more like an encyclopaedia than a story of romance set against the background of the tragedy of the American Civil War and the despicable trade which was slavery.
There really can't be many people who don't know this story, or the film starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable which retains its popularity even after several new generations have been born. I have it on good authority that my (male) boss even has a copy. Oh dear!
With this musical version entrusted to the hugely experienced hands of director Trevor Nunn, you'd think this was going to be a reworking that would enhance the original and bring us something rather new and a bit special. I'm afraid to say that it's not much of a reworking, and there's very little in it that's new. Of course, for the faithful followers who love the book and the film, they'll be overjoyed. But it seems to me that a great opportunity has been missed. Moreover, Nunn's recent revival of 'Porgy and Bess' gave us a tantalising indication that Nunn could go on to do some wonders with 'Gone With The Wind', making it even more woeful that a golden opportunity has been let slip.
The approach to telling this monumental tome of a story has been to utilise narration delivered by various members of the cast. It's not a new device and can often help to move a story forward without making it drag. Here, it just becomes confusing because we're continually looking round to find the person who's currently throwing us the link to the next bit of action.
But there's another aspect to the narration which is both infuriating as well as insulting - it tells us the 'bleeding obvious'! For example, when Scarlett shoots a yankee soldier a narrator says, in solemn tones that sounded like it was being delivered by God himself, that she had 'just shot a man'. Well, yes, we did actually see that! It's not necessary to tell us what we can see - isn't that in lesson number one of the 'learning script writing' course? Or even the 'learning how to direct ' course? Ok, well you can forgive someone missing a thing like that - but then it happened again! After Scarlet shoots the yankee, another woman starts rifling through his bag and finds a set of diamond earrings. “He must have stolen these” she says. No, surely not! Aren't diamond earrings on the list of basic kit for all soldiers serving in the field? Or is that the Salvation Army I'm thinking of? And even if I do sound like I am griping here, it also happened in the scene where Scarlett is rubbing her head against the curtains and gets the idea to turn them into a new dress. The voice says “rubbing hear head on the curtains”, just as Scarlett is doing the action! Painful.
Following on from this, there were times when the whole production seemed to be teetering on the brink of, or dicing with farce. In fact, the woman sitting next to me found much of the show hilarious, at one point descending into a cackle that had the entire row shaking for several minutes. I could see her point. For example, the scene with the baby being born is very funny as the music reaches a crescendo just as the baby appears. Thankfully we didn't get to see the chord being cut! And there's a scene with wounded soldiers wriggling across the stage which seemed odd to say the least even if I coud see the idea behind it. There are a number of other scenes which could easily be taken from a melodrama. Or is that the point? On the other hand, the burning of Atlanta is a very effective bit of technical wizardry that lends a much-needed respite to the doggedness of the story, and provides a suitable climax to the first half. It calls for a small army of stagehands to clear it all up during the interval – good news on the employment front, at least!
Apart from one or two reasonably interesting ballads, the tunes are not exactly fighting to get into the inspirational category. Only a couple of them got rousing receptions, even from the glitzy first-night audience after they had downed their interval bubbly. However, there was one irritating song about 'desperate times' where the phrase was repeat ad nauseum and reiterated again in the script. I think we all got the point the first time it was sung!
Edward Baker-Duly makes Scarlett's obsession with Ashley Wilkes more believable and understandable than his counterpart did in the film. The latter looked as though his hair style was the result of a nasty encounter with mains electricity, and was about as handsome as the result of a union between an ageing toad and a toby jug. Baker-Duly is both handsome and virile, and has the acting talent to go with it.
In the main role as Scarlett, Jill Paice does well to cope with the considerable amount of time she has to spend on stage, and also gives an effective characterisation of the spoilt brat obsessed with the idea of romantic love. However, though I heard other audience members on the way out praising Ms Paice's singing voice, I'm afraid there were a couple of times when she sounded like she was shouting rather than singing, especially in her number 'Gone With The Wind'. I suspect if she carries on like this, her voice inevitably will be.
Pop Idol star Darius Danesh takes the role of the lovable, rich and roguish Rhett Butler. Danesh is a multi-talented singer, songwriter and actor, but he's forced here into being a Gable look-alike which underscored how much of a lost opportunity this production really is. Why not make Rhett dashing but different, even if it didn't fit exactly with the novel or the film?
'Gone With The Wind' is extremely long at just 15 minutes short of 4 hours. I began to think we would all be incarcerated in the New London while we waited for the First World War to break out all over again. Even so, there are events that take place so rapidly that marriage, birth and death zoom by in the blink or two of an eye. And though the production never stalls for scene changes, there's just so much to cram in that it is basically overwhelming. What the piece really needed was a complete overhaul that would have given us a different perspective, even if it couldn't have included everything in the book. I think it's a case here of 'playing safe' to ensure box office success.
Whatever I might say about Gone With The Wind, there are probably enough devotees out there in musical-lover land to keep the doors open for years to come. But even some ardent devotees will be most definitely disappointed if only because the minor characters don't get the same kind of attention they did in the film, and the rest of the show just doesn't have the same capacity to enthrall as its filmic counterpart. For those new to 'Gone With The Wind' there will be a bigger disappointment for it 's the kind of story that is simply part of the past and there were times when the very concept seemed dated and a little dire. Still, tomorrow is another production, isn't it?
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Is a small, well-placed tornado in the vicinity of the theatre too much to hope for?...I found it a cruel, unusual punishment." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The show is neither as bad as one feared nor as good as one has a right to expect." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The problem is structural: how do you cram a 1,000-page novel into three-and-a-half hours of stage time? The answer is "with great difficulty...there is something extravagantly pointless about the whole enterprise." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Soullessly efficient show merely feels like one damn thing after another, an endless parade of unexciting incidents that leaves the viewer feeling neither shaken nor stirred." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " It just doesn’t have the variety, the quirkiness or the moral power. And it doesn’t need the tunes."
Production photo by Catherine Ashmore