There’s a moment towards the end of Britten in Brooklyn in which Sadie Frost, making her stage comeback as Gypsy Rose Lee, describes how the setting and lifestyle herself and her artistic peers choose to live in is, ‘false…it doesn’t mean anything’. This somehow rings true to this production overall.
Set in 1941, Benjamin Britten (Ryan Sampson) arrives in Brooklyn on 7 Middaugh Street to become part of the artistic bohemian community, with the likes of WH Auden (John Hollingworth), Carson McCullers (Ruby Bentall) and Gypsy Rose Lee (Frost) living among it. As they live a fabulous party lifestyle with constant drinking and game playing, little do they know much knowledge of the unraveling of World War II making its impact slowly across the Atlantic.
The setting for Zoe Lewis’s play, Wilton’s Music Hall, both does and doesn’t suit the vibrancy of 1941 Brooklyn. Both her script and the echoey acoustic of the venue completely lacks any party atmosphere, with little to no action of this taking place on stage and thus losing a significant amount of potential interest of the period. However, for what her script is, a tamed down insight of the ‘Brit-Art’ scene, the grandeur of the venue perfectly suits this.
For what the play is, set in such a specific period, expectations for a wild party and detailed discussions of Britten and his peers discussing their artistic developments were not met. It’s a satisfying watch of a group of housemates playing games, singing songs and drinking. This is all fine and well, but for what the period is and how essential these figures were in the artistic scene of New York, the script becomes incredibly watered down and essentially about…nothing in a sense. It becomes false, and that’s what’s most infuriating about watching this.
Ryan Sampson leads the production with gusto and a much needed vibrancy to the script. Whilst he lacks a seriousness and inability to expose some of Britten’s mental issues relating to exposing his sexuality, his buoyancy when engaging in musical conversation and his vulnerability when talking about his mother makes Sampson’s performance well rounded. David Burnett also gives a steely performance as John, a soldier in the second act who provides a darkness and reality check to the characters with a domineering stage presence. There are also the likes of John Hollingworth, acting as the cliched pompous artist with a drunken manner of an Oxford university student, and Ruby Bentall, slipping in and out of scenes with, despite some good wit, a lack of purpose to the script. And also to dismay, the much anticipated Sadie Frost fails to deliver a strong sultry characterisation for such an icon as Gypsy Rose Lee, but instead chooses to tame her presence down significantly. Nor does she deliver a particularly strong American accent.
The main impression of Britten in Brooklyn is incredibly shabby chic, in terms of its setting and characters within the bohemian community. I wish there was a complete lack of shabbiness to what could have been a more engaging insight of the artistry of these established figures and the wild lives they had. Zoe Lewis’s script, unfortunately, struggles to clearly show the importance of this period and instead makes this a more questionable thought for audience members.
Reviewed by Jack Grey
Photos: Marc Brenner
BRITTEN IN BROOKLYN plays at Wilton’s Music Hall until 17 September 2016. Tickets
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