You can't fault Northern Ballet for timing, as its new stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby drops on London the same week as Baz Luhrmann's film remake is shown in Cannes. The first night even mustered a red carpet and a posse of paparazzi at the door. But what works on stage is not what works on screen. There can be no panoramic camerawork to establish Jay Gatsby's palatial estate, no text with which to convey "the exhilarating ripple" of Daisy Buchanan's voice. What's more, the characters must identify themselves without being named. So, it's a credit to David Nixon as both director and choreographer that he not only succeeds in telling the story clearly, and pacily, but with a depth of visual detail that sends you scurrying back to F Scott Fitzgerald's prose to verify the exact descriptive phrase. And it's all there. For once, no one goes home muttering "that's not how I remember the book".
Jerome Kaplan's sets are both beautiful and ingenious, flipping between Nick Carraway's cottage, Gatsby's mansion, the Wilsons' garage and Tom Buchanan's city love-nest, even suggesting busy Manhattan sidewalks with the minimum of fuss. Tim Mitchell's lighting largely forgoes Roaring Twenties glitter in favour of the sepia shadows of Edward Hopper paintings – an interesting idea that downplays the director's own frock designs.
Less convincing is the patchwork of film music by the late Richard Rodney Bennett, so far-ranging in style that it lacks coherence. The jazzy stuff is fun, but the love themes are pure syrup, and the use of the theme-tune from Murder on the Orient Express triggers false associations. The composer's more bracing avant-garde voice ratchets up the tension in the drama's second half, but overall the music feels piecemeal.
Gatsby's lavish parties might seem a gift to a choreographer. Nixon duly delivers a lively Charleston, and the curious Maxixe, in which both partners bend forward, thrusting out their bottoms. There are virtuoso hijinx for a dapper male trio, bouncing off tables. But in spirit these orderly scenes barely nod to the bacchic mayhem that propelled the Jazz Age towards the Wall Street Crash.
As the flighty Daisy, Martha Leebolt is limited by one-note choreography. And for all Tobias Batley's blank-cheque elegance as Gatsby, he doesn't convince as a man of mystery. It's Kenneth Tindall's burly, brutish Tom Buchanan who generates real tension on stage, and the scene where he slugs his mistress, Victoria Sibson's coarse, venal Myrtle, provides the gear-change the production needs in order to hurtle towards its shocking conclusion.
This Gatsby is a steady shot at an obscure target, and as such is a worthy alternative to the film.
To be realistic, there can’t be many chances left to see the great Sylvie Guillem perform, mesmerising as she is at 48. So catch the return of 6000 miles away, the triple bill she mounted in 2011 as a benefit for post-earthquake Japan. It includes solos and duets by Mats Ek, William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian. At Sadler’s Wells, London (Mon to Sat).