The uneasy relationship between Benjamin Britten and WH Auden, Britain’s premier wartime composer and the country’s foremost writer and poet, is fascinating.
For a short time they shared the same squalid New York bolthole. It was hoped that the louche atmosphere and debauched, hedonistic lifestyle, would stimulate their creative juices. Instead it produced a dire opera and created a rift in their friendship that took a lifetime to heal.
Zoe Lewis’sBritten in Brooklyn, which opened at Wilton’s Music Hall, in East London, on Friday night, is set during that giddy time and has the raw ingredients to be an engaging and thought-provoking drama.
It is undoubtedly based on Sherill Tippins’ 2005 book, and later, musical, February House: The Story of WH Auden, which exposed the riotous bohemian lifestyle inside this infamous artists’ commune.
Here Lewis has also thrown in a subplot about how this group of artists, writers and thinkers, mostly pacifists, “protested” against involvement in the Second World War by staging an orgy of drinking and pill-taking.
That also makes Britten in Brooklyn somewhat topical, remembering how our own political luvvies recently campaigned against Brexit with a (sober) performance of Hamlet in Calais.
But this big apple fails to be the tasty morsel it could have been through a mix of vanity, arrogance and lack of cash.
Wilton’s never fails to delight me. With each visit I find that another part of this wonderful and historic old building has been lovingly restored. No performance space in this country can provide the atmosphere that emanates from every distressed brick and candytwist pillar.
But, sadly, it fails spectacularly to get it right for this show. Whether that’s down to a tight budget or director Oli Rose – or something else – is open to debate – but Britten in Brooklyn just doesn’t fly.
7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn, was notorious for its drink, drugs and rock’n’roll reputation. During the 1940s it was an open house where a succession of artistic types would lose themselves.
It was noisy, brash and outrageous – the very place to be to escape the harsh reality of a country on the brink of war.
You’d think that Rose could draw on the experiences of his star, the sometime actress, sometime businesswoman and full-time celebrity, Sadie Frost, as to how to recreate that scene.
Outside of the M25 most people wouldn’t know the name other than, perhaps, being the ex-wife of actor Jude Law, but in the 1990s she, alongside supermodel Kate Moss – who was in the audience on opening night – were leaders of the infamous Primrose Hill set whose scandalous behaviour was everyday fodder for the national press redtops.
But here we see a den of iniquity that is quiet, sedate, empty and rather shabby. There’s no life, warmth or colour in the production whatsoever; no evocation of tawdry bohemia, no party atmosphere, nowhere near enough bodies on stage or noise. I’ve seen more animation in Highgate Cemetery.
Its inhabitants – Auden, American wunderkind, novelist and playwright Carson McCullers, Britten and, bizarrely (but true), the stripper turned aspiring pulp fiction writer, Gypsy Rose Lee – seem incapable of a good or bad time.
Their idea of fun seems to be playing childish parlour games. Any minute, I thought, someone would break out the snakes and ladders for a real moment of brazen licentiousness.
This isn’t a bad play. It just needs more work. There are excellent performances from Ryan Sampson as a conflicted, emotionally confused Britten and John Hollingworth as Auden. Both give passionate and utterly believable turns as two of our brightest talents (who were both denounced during WWII for their anti-war stance).
You know artistic types. There are always bound to be tantrums and Hollingworth’s Auden can throw humdingers.
He is fervently against intervention, sympathising with Hitler and suggests, along with McCullers, that the pogroms and Nazi death camps are nothing more than allied propaganda.
Further, he has the academic education to offer up a who’s who of artistic and literary types who have died in previous wars which, if nothing else, proves that the idealistic make lousy soldiers.
It’s made worse by Auden clearly smitten with his house-guest while Britten, struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality (and obvious Oedipus complex), clings to his “friendship” with singer Peter Peers.
There’s an overall feeling of gloom and fading talent pervading these characters as if we’re catching them at the fag end of their careers.
Instead of being bold, bright and gay, they’re all struggling – with their sexuality, with their work, their relationships and their beliefs.
They think they can “make a difference” to world politics by hiding away and drinking themselves into oblivion, refusing the draught, and denouncing the war.
Ruby Bentall’s acerbic, occasionally comic, portrayal of the doomed and, if this is to be believed, alcoholic, McCullers is compelling although her epileptic fits are a bit over-egged.
The production is let down by the casting of 51-year-old Sadie Frost – who has a limited acting background – to play the vibrant and colourful 29-year-old Gypsy Rose Lee. What were they thinking?
There’s nothing more excruciating and embarrassing than a mature, middle aged woman, with a limited range, thinking that she can get away playing a larger-than-life character, more than two decades younger than herself, simply by putting on a breathless Monroe/ Mae West voice and sashaying provocatively across the stage.
Britten in Brooklyn runs at Wilton’s until September 17.
Britten in Brooklyn
Britten in Brooklyn has the raw ingredients to be an engaging and thought-provoking drama but it fails to capture the racy bohemian lifestyle of its colourful subjects.