★★ | Britten in Brooklyn
During the early years of World War Two, Benjamin Britten lived in exile in a townhouse in New York with his friend, the poet W.H. Auden and a shifting cast of artists and writers. The composer was criticised by the British press for his ‘avoidance’ of the war and faced a tribunal for conscientious objection on his return in 1942. Whereas Auden embraced his sexuality and was having an affair with a younger man, Britten was still struggling somewhat with his in the oppressive environment of 1940s England. Add to this mix some of the other residents: bisexual writer Carson McCullers hiding out from her husband, hitting the bottle and chasing after women and burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, trying to write a crime thriller. The potential for a fascinating story is all there on a plate. Sadly, writer Zoe Lewis and director Oli Rose have somehow made a dull play out of an intriguing piece of history.
The play feels oddly old fashioned (and not in a good way). There’s something twee and tedious about the drunken party games and fumbling. The cast seem like they’re in a void and in spite of Cecilia Carey’s excellent set there’s no atmosphere at all. The four lead actors try to recreate a thriving Bohemian arts scene of hedonistic parties (which isn’t easy with four people) and instead it feels like a staid afternoon tea that anyone in their right mind would exit sharply. There’s a whole ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps!” and “Looks how eccentric we all are!” vibe that actually just feels incredibly tiresome.
The venue of Wilton’s Music Hall (a Grade 2 star listed music hall from 1859) is gorgeous and is an echoing chamber of a space. Dom James’ sound design is beautiful when it’s in evidence: clanging boat engines, New York traffic in the background and distant music. Sadly, this isn’t very often and for most of the play the actors have no backing at all, adding to the strangely sterile environment.
The saving grace of the play is Ryan Sampson who gives a strong central performance as Britten. He’s convincing in his vulnerability and manages to show glimpses of pain through a veneer of genteel awkwardness. The actors playing Gypsy Rose Lee (Sadie Frost), Auden and McCullers also perform ably but are saddled with a lacklustre script that feels two-dimensional.
If you know a little about these fascinating characters then you’ll leave knowing about as much as when you came in. If you know nothing at all then you’ll be perplexed. It’s a shame that this didn’t pull it off. As the strippers told Gypsy “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. Maybe the team here should heed that advice.
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Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.