Director Trevor Nunn’s epic adaptation of Gone With the Wind had its official opening last night (22 April 2008, previews from 5 April) at the West End’s New London theatre. With a cast led by Broadway’s Jill Paice and former Pop idol contestant Darius Danesh (pictured) as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the show, billed as “a play with music”, is written by American newcomer Margaret Martin.
Set in Georgia in the 1860s, Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel follows Scarlett’s journey from a life of luxury on her father’s plantation through the Civil War and the hardships it heaps on her and her family to the rocky post-war peace, with her love for Ashley Wilkes and the renegade Rhett Butler adding fuel to the fire.
Investors must have hoped to emulate at least some of the success of Victor Fleming’s seminal 1939 film version starring Clarke Gable and Vivien Leigh, which won ten Oscars and became one of the biggest box office successes in Hollywood history. However, after cancelled previews (See News, 14 Apr 2008) and rumours of audience walkouts, Aldo Scrofani and Colin Ingram, producers of the new stage version, must have picked up this morning’s papers with some trepidation.
Overnight reviews were almost unanimously hostile. While many critics were exhausted by the running time - still clocking in at three hours 40 minutes after substantial cuts during previews - poor structuring was the bigger gripe. And Margaret Martin’s score didn’t fare much better, with a “knock-out” gospel slave song in the second act being singled out by many as the only musical highlight. Performance-wise, Natasha Yvette Williams’ Mammy eclipsed stars Jill Paice and Darius Danesh for critical raves, but still couldn’t prevent Gone With the Wind being labelled “extravagantly pointless”.
Of course, don’t forget, critics famously got it wrong for another mammoth Trevor Nunn-directed musical adaptation of a literary classic: after a first night mauling, Les Miserables went on to become the West End’s longest-running musical, now in its 23rd year.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “There’s a bizarre suggestion in Trevor Nunn’s production that Scarlett morphs into some kind of Mother Courage of the American Civil War, pulling her baby and belongings around on a gun carriage after the burning of Atlanta before breaking into a hymn to the transforming powers of flatulence: ‘The life I used to know has gone, gone with the wind.’ No more curried eggs for her, then… Jill Paice runs a gamut of emotions from A to B, as Dorothy Parker once said of Tallulah Bankhead, but she does so with endearing charm. There is a collective intake of breath at the sight of ‘Pop Idol’ Darius Danesh as Rhett Butler; he’s about seven feet tall and blessed with an extraordinary bass baritone voice that he may find a way of using properly one day. For now, oddly stiff and smarmy at the same time, he looks like a joke entrant in a Clark Gable lookalike contest… Nunn has bolstered his company with such reliable performers as Susan Tracy, Susan Jane Tanner, Jeff Shankley and Ray Shell, but none of them has much chance to shine in the encroaching, deadly mediocrity of the material.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “Does no one ever learn from the past? An earlier musical of Margaret Mitchell's mammoth novel, having been seen in Tokyo and London, eventually burned out in Atlanta. Undeterred, theatrical tyro Margaret Martin has written book, music and lyrics for this new version which Trevor Nunn directs; and the result feels like a hectic, strip-cartoon account of a dated pop classic. 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’… To those who see Scarlett as a feminist role model, I can only say that heartless opportunism and emotional blindness don't strike me as the most attractive qualities; but Jill Paice does an excellent job of reconciling us to one of literature's least beguiling protagonists… There is something extravagantly pointless about the whole enterprise. Why revive a novel that, for all the liberal exertions of Martin and Nunn, obstinately views history through the wrong end of a telescope?”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (one star) – “Connoisseurs of big, bad musicals must rush to catch Gone With the Wind in case it’s quickly blown away on gales of ridicule. Or is a small, well-placed tornado in the vicinity of the theatre too much to hope for?... This may sound an ungenerous response to a musical rendition of the 69-year-old movie that turned the American Civil war into a seductive weepie and ravished countless millions of women in the process. This version, though, reminds us of the dangers of trying to cram a vintage film spectacular into theatrical confines, particularly with an absolute beginner as the adaptor. Most musicals are the work of several hands and minds. Here, however, book, music and lyrics are all attributed to Margaret Martin, who has spent 30 years taking pregnancy classes for expectant parents in California, studied musical theory and now gives laborious birth to her first musical.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “The vultures have been circling over this show for weeks. There have been cancelled previews, reports that it was so long that audiences were missing the last train home, and of people physically collapsing in the foyer through sheer exhaustion. Actually I made that last bit up. But I have to say that when I emerged from the theatre after three hours and 40 minutes, it felt as if I had spent several years watching Gone With the Wind and that I had probably missed not just the Beijing Olympics but the London games planned for 2012 as well… Trevor Nunn's production achieves the kind of paradox normally only found in the baffling field of quantum mechanics. It feels interminable, but moment by moment it also seems ridiculously rushed, so that incidents that really make a mark in the film go for almost nothing on stage… The only performer who really lights up the stage is Natasha Yvette Williams as a huge-busted, full-hearted Mammy, who rips into the show's one decent number and has all the presence, good humour and heart the rest of the show so dismally lacks.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) – “Frankly, my dears, I did give a damn but not as big a damn as I had hoped. To put it another way: fiddlededee to some but not all the things that are occurring in a piece I wasn’t always sure should exist. Margaret Martin’s book for her musical version of Gone With the Wind is almost too faithful to Margaret Mitchell’s novel and, at 190 minutes, certainly too long. Trevor Nunn’s cast sometimes left me hankering for Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, who breezed and dazzled their way through the film. Sadly, I often found myself wishing the musical just wasn’t a musical… Have Martin and Nunn tried to bring political correctness to Margaret Mitchell? Just a bit, notably when they’re treating black characters, and especially Jina Burrows’ Prissy, who is no ditsy airhead but a young woman who will use her freedom to become a teacher. Indeed, a gospel-style song in which the ex-slaves celebrate their liberty was received more warmly than any other, and a solo by Natasha Yvette Williams’ excellent Mammy almost equally so, even though neither was that relevant to the plot.”
Paul Callan in the Daily Express (three stars) - "When the American Civil War ended after four years, the survivors staggered from the battlefields, exhausted and thankful it was all over. It feels like that when the cast finally take their bows in this show and, after three-and-a-half hours, you emerge with gratitude into the night… There are few songs that linger in the mind longer than a few seconds - and Ms Martin flagrantly breaks the golden rule that must be observed of all composers of hit musicals. That is, you must come out with a good tune ringing in your head…With its 36 actors playing over 90 parts, the show is often a blur of activity, some of it blundering and clumsy, while at other times it does move with a certain slick pace around the stage… You really wonder why a director as eminent as Trevor Nunn has become involved in a show that could well go down in the history of theatrical oddities. He is fond of the big canvas, as in Les Miserables. But, sadly, Gone With The Wind, despite its meaty story, just flaps limply in the breeze."
- by Theo Bosanquet