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BWW Review: BRITTEN IN BROOKLYN, Wilton's Music Hall, 2 September 2016

Perhaps it's impossible for anyone of my age who grew up on The Young Ones, with its squalid house full of anarchic students, to believe that placing unique individuals (or egomaniacs if you see the glass half-empty) under one roof would produce anything other chaos rather than a revival of a Parisian salon, but back in 1940, that's was pretty much the objective in a Brooklyn brownstone.

At WH Auden's invitation, up-and-coming English composer Benjamin Britten, struggling in the aftermath of his mother's death and still in the closet, brings his suitcase and burgeoning musical genius to New York to share a roof with the poet, the young writing sensation, Carson McCullers, and burlesque superstar Gypsy Rose Lee (who, natch, is writing her first book, The G-String Murders).

While there's plenty of sex and drugs, we're still a generation early for rock'n'roll, with America's position on World War II and, specifically, Britten's impending call-up the main topic of conversation. (Though, even as isolated as they were from the war's realities, would anyone really blame the advent of World War II on Germany being "bombed to smithereens" in World War I?)

And it's in the conversations that the play, for all its star characters and star actors, fails to take off. John Hollingworth does his best with an aggressively pacifist Auden, but too often the poet topples into pomposity and cliche, his earnestness overpowering his sense of humour.

Ryan Simpson gives us a Britten more child than man, who never resolves his distaste for war with his equal distaste for what he knows of Nazism. Sadie Frost's Gypsy Rose Lee, despite being younger at the time than Auden, is part matriarch, part provocateur, but never suggests the wit in conversation nor the steamy sexuality that fascinated America and made her a huge star in the 1930s.

Ruby Bentall's Carson McCullers provides a welcome spark whenever she's on stage, a boozy tomboy married to a man, but hopelessly in love with Gypsy, a bottle in her hand except when fits would overcome her. Bentall captures her innocence and vehemence and is a magnetic presence in a play that needs one.

Though Wilton's Music Hall is a spectacular venue and ideal for suggesting the decrepit house and its rolling cast of countercultural artists, it's not an easy space to work in - the dreadful acoustics, the lack of a rake for seating and the limited lighting options place an extra burden on actors and creatives. The challenge is never quite met in this production, which really needed to show us more of the unique qualities of four extraordinary icons of their arts, who come across as rather less than that - and, consequently, struggle to convince.

Photo Marc Brenner

Britten in Brooklyn continues until 17 September

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From This Author Gary Naylor