There are times when I sit at the keyboard hammering out my humble opinions on the latest shows to hit London that I wish I could really write. You know, be a great author of stories or poetry and be able to live a bohemian life where I get up at midday, write for a couple of hours then spend the rest of the day sipping cocktails whilst observing my fellow man. Obviously that sort of life isn’t going to happen to me but if it did then I would probably be welcome to take up residence at No 7 Middagh Street, New York which just happens to be the central location for Zoe Lewis’ play Britten in Brooklyn which is receiving its world premiere at Wilton’s Music Hall.
The story is set in 1941 when, with Europe at war, composer Benjamin Britten (Ryan Sampson) and his partner Peter take up residence in the Brooklyn home of acclaimed writer Wystan Hugh Auden (John Hollingworth). The house can be said to be truly bohemian as, along with Auden’s other half Chester, there is also in residence the incomparable stripper Miss Gypsy Rose Lee (Sadie Frost) and American author Carson McCullers (Ruby Bentall). These talented and somewhat feckless people seem to get along together rather well in the ramshackle old house where the sun is always above the yard-arm and strange games of ‘murder’ are a constant entertainment and the events occurring in Europe may as well be happening on another planet. And that is how Auden, a committed pacifist, and Britten want to keep things while they work together on a new opera. Somehow they succeed until a fateful day in December 1941, when the actions of another imperial race and the arrival of a tall handsome stranger from England, by the name of John (David Burnett) forces the real world into their lives and for Benjamin at least, forces the party to finally end.
Based on genuine events, Zoe Lewis has managed to capture the language and attitude of the cultural elite in the early 1940s really well. There is a wonderful moment when, completely oblivious to the blitz, Battle of Britain etc, Benjamin asks John if the theatres are still playing in London. Unfortunately though, for me at least, the play didn’t really have that many high spots and it felt like there were people – such as Peter and Chester – that should have been there but weren’t. It also felt a bit unrealistic that, even such bohemian hedonists as these, were woefully ignorant of the war and what life was like in Germany, particularly for the Jewish population – despite the number that had escaped to the USA and the predominance of Jews working in the Arts.
Having said that, I thought the production itself was pretty good. Cecilia Carey’s multi-level set was wonderfully ragtag with a piano and a bathtub splendidly dominating the stage and being put to multiple uses very effectively by Director Oli Rose. The costumes were very era-appropriate, although I do question the coat and hat used for John which really didn’t feel right to me. The acting was pretty good all the way around and, despite their disparity in heights, it felt that there was a really nice bond of affection between John Hollingworth and Ryan Sampson as Auden and Britten respectively. I have to say I particularly enjoyed the opening scene as Britten is interrogated by the Tribunal whilst in his head is conducting ‘Dawn from the Sea Pictures’. This was a wonderful opening to the show and set a standard for writing and acting, particularly with the second scene where Britten is writing to Auden from the MS Axel that was difficult to improve upon. Sadie Frost and Ruby Bentall as Gypsy and Carson also had some lively chemistry and it was really nice to learn a bit more about the real Gypsy as a person. I hadn’t heard of Carson McCullers prior to this show but have already downloaded some of her work on my Kindle (other readers are available). David Burnett’s character John is probably the most difficult to judge as he only appears in the second act – though he has a profound effect on the story. I think the problem I had with John is that the character didn’t feel right. In the 1940s, even allowing for the exigencies of war, officers of the armed forces were, on the whole, still pretty much drawn from a certain class of people and John just wasn’t that class. If he had been a senior non-commissioned officer, then the character would in my mind have been perfect.
Summing up then. Whilst Britten in Brooklyn was an interesting play in many respects, on the whole it didn’t really work for me. The production and acting are good but, to my mind, there were some issues with the writing which lead to inconsistencies in the narrative, and an overall production that didn’t really grip me throughout.
Review by Terry Eastham
New York City, 1940. A dilapidated house in Brooklyn Heights
31st August to 17th September 2016
7:30pm · 2.30pm Wed & Sat · 6pm & 8.30pm Fridays
Duration: 2hrs (approx) including an interval
The bohemian lifestyle of Benjamin Britten, WH Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee in the artistic community at 7 Middagh Street starts to unravel as World War II becomes a brutal reality.
Exiled in America for his beliefs and a national disgrace, Benjamin Britten must decide which way his conflicted political ideals lie but the constant parties, doomed affairs and John Dunne, the mysterious stranger, provide an easy distraction.
Based on true events, the World Premiere of Zoe Lewis’s passionate and thought-provoking play takes place in the beautiful and unique setting of Wilton’s Music Hall.
Starring Sadie Frost and directed by Oli Rose, Britten in Brooklyn plays for a strictly limited season of 21 performances.
Wilton’s Music Hall, Graces Alley, London E1 8JB