Review: Britten in Brooklyn (Wilton's Music Hall)
The world premiere of Zoe Lewis' play sees Benjamin Britten living in New York with WH Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee
Historical plays are notoriously difficult to pull off, requiring dialogue of the "Monsieur Monet, meet Monsieur Renoir" variety. So alarm bells should have rung for Zoe Lewis when she decided to take on the subject of the two years the composer Benjamin Britten spent in New York in a ramshackle brownstone which he shared with the poet WH Auden, the novelist Carson McCullers and - astonishingly - the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
You can see the appeal of this extraordinary ménage, who devoted their time to creativity and partying. Throw in the fact that the war in Europe had started, and both Auden and Britten were conscientious objectors, regarded by many as traitors for sitting the fighting out, and the mixture looks exceptionally rich. But Lewis can't make anything of it; she has neither the skill or the imaginative force to shape strands of thought and feeling into material that might actually make drama. Instead we just get people moving round the stage in an animated and unnatural manner, talking at each other about things big and small - a simulacrum of energy that has no real effect.
Poor Sadie Frost as Gypsy initially takes the brunt of the exposition; she's saddled with explaining who everyone is while lolling seductively against a pillar. As the action progresses, she has even less to do, except to remind people that there is a war going on. "It looks like genoicide," she announces after a rare consultation with a newspaper. But she doesn't have much time for reading; she's too busy arguing with McCullers (Ruby Bentall), who is in love with her, and who has the disconcerting habit of falling into fits, and then immediately spouting great gobbets of plot from her novels.
Auden (John Hollingworth) is least well served by his depiction. He comes across as a tedious poseur, whose only reason for pacificism is that too many artists died in the First World War – and in any case, he fancies another drink and a bit of a party. Whatever you think of Auden's anti-war stance, this is a cruel reduction of a considerable literary figure.
Britten emerges a bit better, partly thanks to Ryan Sampson's well-timed performance. He looks and sounds nothing like Britten, is an innocent abroad rather than a sophisticated man grappling with his conscience and some of the greatest music ever written, but he gives the play a tiny sense of purpose.
Director Oli Rose keeps the tedious drinking and the endless party games moving along as briskly as he can and Cecilia Carey's dishevelled, split level set is a pleasure. But nothing can disguise the tedium of this long stay in Brooklyn.
Britten in Brooklyn runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 17 September.