BRITTEN IN BROOKLYN
by Zoe Lewis
1 Star *
Wilton’s Music Hall to 17 September
Grace Alley, London E1 8JB
Tues- Thurs 7.30pm. Fri 6pm & 8pm. Mat Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 2hr 15 mins One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7702 2789
Review: William Russell 2 September
A night to remember – or not, as the case may be
This shambles of a play by Zoe Lewis is about the time in 1939 to 1941 Benjamin Britten spent in New York living with W H Auden in a sort artistic commune Auden and George Davis,, literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, had set up in a Brooklyn brownstone house in Middagh Street.
The other occupants included Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, of all people, and the writer Paul Bowles, while everybody who was anybody on the New York art scene came to call, drink, talk and generally misbehave.
It should have provided Ms Lewis with plenty of material, but she has nothing to say worth saying although the cast struggle valiantly to make the lines sound worth uttering.
There is no sign of Peter Pears, who had come to America with Britten, let alone of George Davis or Chester Kallman, who was to be Auden’s long term companion, and Gypsy Rose Lee’s maid, whom she brought along with her.
Auden, very much the lord of the manor, had met Britten when they both worked for John Grierson’s GPO film unit in the 1930s and was his writer and mentor of choice. But the operetta they wrote in New York, Paul Bunyan, was not a critical success – the New York critics had little time for Britten –and the two fell out. It was to be their last collaboration, and Auden was dispatched to join the rank of Britten’s “corpses”, while Britten and Pears, who were pacifists, returned to Britain and were accepted as conscientious objectors.
There is material in plenty, but Ms Lewis makes no use of it. Ruby Bentall is, however, a spirited McCullers, John Hollingsworth lends a looming presence to Auden, and Ryan Sampson does what he can, which is quite a lot, with the role of the uptight mummy’s boy Britten.
Gypsy Rose Lee, the cuckoo in the nest, was there because she had literary pretensions. As a stripper she was famous for the way she would quote the great and the highbrow while taking off her clothes, a habit sent up gloriously in the Zip goes the Zipper number in Pal Joey. While in residence she wrote a successful thriller, The G String Murders, said by some to have been ghost written. Maybe Sadie Frost, who plays her, should have employed a ghost actress for all the impact she makes. Gypsy, if nothing else, had stage presence, something Ms Frost lacks.
Had it any thoughts to express, the play might have been thought provoking. As it is one feels for the cast faced with having to spend the next week or two spouting this mindless stuff which Ms Lewis claims to have been inspired by her time on the Brit-Art scene of the late nineties and noughties. The mind boggles.
Gypsy Rose Lee: Sadie Frost.
Carson McCullers: Ruby Bentall.
John: David Burnett.
W H Auden: John Hollingworth.
Benjamin Britten: Ryan Sampson.
Director; Oli Rose.
Set & Costume Design: Cecilia Carey.
Musical Director & Sound Design: Dom James.
Lighting Design: Peter Harrison.