First Night: Gone With The Wind, New London Theatre, London


Winds of change resurrect some Southern comforts

You don't have to wait long for the line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" in this new stage musical version of Gone With The Wind. You can read it, as you enter, emblazoned on the T-shirts and mugs at the merchandise stall. There are also aprons for sale that assert that "I'll never be hungry again".

It's an index of the huge popularity of the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's novel that these phrases are etched on the collective consciousness and it's also a measure of what this musical has to live up to in attempting to tell the story in a different way. Trevor Nunn's production is the most anticipated tuner of the season but the word from the previews was worrying, with rumours of excessive length. Now trimmed to a not exactly terse three hours 40 minutes, the show is neither as bad as one feared nor as good as one has a right to expect.

In opening out this saga of cross-purpose love, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the most prominent innovation is the treatment of the black community who are here granted what they were there denied: a dignified, independent voice. The racism of the South is fully acknowledged. One great benefit is that the score is enriched with spirituals, blues and gospel music, spine-tinglingly well-sung by such cast members as Natasha Yvette Williams's loveably sassy Mammy and Jina Burrows' Prissy.

But the drawback is that the well-intentioned liberal revisionism too often feels grafted-on apologetically. Once freed, the hapless Prissy has a sudden, unconvincing personality rethink and belts out her determination to learn to read and become a teacher. A dispute about responses to post-bellum whites is evasively resolved in a great whoosh of uplift in the anthem declaring that "if we close our hearts to hatred/And we open them to love/Hope will follow on the wings of a dove".

The rest of the score ranges from soppy, forgettable love songs to would-be witty, forgettable patter numbers to forgettable Irish airs about the Importance of the Land to... I forget. The story, perforce often rattled-through and perfunctory, has to rely heavily on spoken narration from figures stationed on the picket fence balcony that surrounds the curved wooden acting arena in John Napier's "environmental" design. I never thought that I'd pine for projections in a stage show but the far from awe-inspiring flash-bangs and set-collapses that evoke the burning of Atlanta; the distinctly under-populated spectacle of the Confederate dead; and the excitement-free rotating-wagon escape to Tara leave the hackneyed theatrical language of mimed horses and props looking in need of further support to register the requisite texture, tension and atmosphere.

The diabolically dashing Darius Danesh (of Pop Idol fame) brings a seductively insolent charm, a dark velvet voice and a genuine, fugitive pathos to the cynical blockade runner. If Jill Paice hasn't quite nailed the comic, outrageously feline wiliness of Scarlett, she boasts the bright, soaring vocal quality to convey the heroine's indomitable survivor's drive. The two performers are at their moving best when towards the end, each lost in their separate loneliness, they engage in an unconscious duet of marriage misery.

All the same, I was left wondering whether, on the whole, this quixotic enterprise takes us any deeper into the inner life of Gone With The Wind. The irony is that it's Max Steiner's superb score for the movie version, with its character motifs and achingly interwoven period tunes, that offers the true object lesson in how to use music dramatically.

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