‘The creatures of the night have come here to play…’ Bethany Baker reviews Shotgun Theatre’s The Wild Party
‘It’s dark, raunchy Gatsby!’ were the words used by director Beth Cowley to describe Shotgun Theatre’s latest theatrical venture, The Wild Party (see the preview here) – and from that moment on I was sold. Despite the pervasive attempts of A-level English to sabotage some of the greatest novels in the canon (with varying levels of success), I love Gatsby. There’s something magical about stepping into the excitement of the pre-Great Depression period before it all went wrong: then seeing everything collapse into chaos at the characters’ feet.
With such expectations in my head, walking into the Roborough studios to find a minimalist set, comprising only of a few pieces of furniture and a persian rug, confused me a little – surely Gatsby’s all about the decadent – but once the action began any earlier misgivings dissolved within minutes.
Shotgun’s rendition of Michael LaChiusa’s musical captures the spirited yet conflicted atmosphere of the Jazz Age with perfection. The two sides to the coin are presented equally by a talented cast and production team: on the one hand, there is the glitz and glamour we all associate with the 1920s, with flawlessly-costumed fringed flappers and a range of energetic Vaudeville performers dancing the Black Bottom, and many, many bottles of gin. All-round debauchery dominates show girl Queenie’s ‘wild party’, suggested by her lover Burrs after she threatens him with a knife. Their relationship is on the rocks, as are many ‘established’ pairings’: couples inevitably intermingle, leading to many a newfound partnership being consummated by the end of the night (let’s just say, there’s a lot of sex).
Inevitably, the hedonistic partygoers’ wanton behaviour has its consequences. As The Wild Party’s tagline warns, ‘no party lasts forever’: truths are exposed and masks removed as the show crashes towards its tragic conclusion, leaving a trail of disillusioned characters in its wake.
To portray the emotional journey of these characters needs a high level of sensitivity in every role, which the cast masterfully demonstrated: however a special mention must go to Ben Phillipp as Burrs, whose intense performance made his character’s descent into madness mesmerising to watch.
One of the production’s most notable features, the experimental staging paid off exceptionally well. Sitting at the edges of the room avoided drawing attention to just one or two people: I often found my eye drawn to many of the supporting characters as they sat at a table drinking, or laughing together in a private conversation, only to find them perfectly ‘in character’ and just as captivating to watch as the leads. This gave the performance as a whole a humanity and personal level of engagement that otherwise might not have been achieved. Instead of being actively encouraged to watch specific characters, as you would be by a traditional staging set-up, Shotgun’s staging ensures you are in the room with them, changing the dynamic completely as you observe every little reaction from the sidelines: making everyone’s experience, depending who they chose to watch, completely unique.
Accompanying the cast, LaChiusa’s deviously tricky jazz score was very well-performed by the band. Centred around the piano, the music combined the feel of an old silent film score with the jazzy overtones of the period to create the perfect atmospheric backdrop.
All in all, my Fitzgeraldian expectations weren’t too far off the mark. The Wild Party is simple yet eloquent in its portrayal of the Roaring Twenties, offering an alternative look into the world of ‘the lost generation’. But it’s the sheer rawness of Shotgun’s interpretation that stands out, giving Gatsby a run for every dollar of his money: and if this is what Shotgun can pull off in the first term of the year, I can’t wait to see what they do next.
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