There are few more iconic images in 20th century culture than that of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sexy, cute; the ridiculously long cigarette holder adding a touch of posy extravagance; cosseting her pussycat to show that she’s kind to animals too. Delicately unreal; almost – but not quite – attainable; forever to escape labelling or compartmentalising; teasingly aloof; charmingly kooky. It’s a character that should be full of life and extremes; full of light and shade. Funny and tragic. Confident and timid. Gazing vacantly one minute, then teeming with motivation the next. You can get all that from the poster. We’ve never read the book, and we’ve never seen the film. We saw the Lost Musical of Holly Golightly a few years ago, and looking back I remember it was a rather unsatisfactory experience, neither giving us a decent insight into the character of Holly Golightly nor telling a good story, lacking, as it was, in both drama and substance. Surely, this new full length play adaptation of Truman Capote’s original book will fill in the gaps.
The story is somewhat slight. Holly lives in a brownstone apartment in New York, with no discernible job nor way of funding her lifestyle. She’s totally unpredictable, sometimes going away for weeks on end, unannounced; often in the company of more mature men and other insalubrious companions. She clearly likes a good party; she allows her neighbour to get part way into her life but she still keeps him at a certain distance. In the end, she suffers a downfall in fortune, loses an unborn child but follows her heart by escaping to Brazil. I was struck by the many similarities with Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby; a charismatic, extravagant but elusive central character; a slightly misfit narrator commenting on the side of the action; scenes of New York excessiveness; and ending up with shattered dreams.
I should point out that Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the third (I think?) public performance of this production which still counted as a preview, so it was definitely still bedding in and maybe there was still some scope to make a few tweaks here and there before press night. But let’s first look at the ingredients that make up this production. The adaptation is by Richard Greenberg, an experienced American author who won the Tony Award for best play in 2003 for Take Me Out, and who also adapted Strindberg’s Dance of Death to critical acclaim. It’s directed by Nikolai Foster, Artistic Director of the Curve, who last year gave us two stunning productions with Beautiful Thing and A Streetcar Named Desire – he also directed Jodie Prenger in the fun revival of Calamity Jane. The enjoyably detailed set is by Matthew Wright, whose work at the Menier is a series of delights; he also designed the eye-catching costumes, and Miss Golightly obviously makes it a rule never to be seen in the same outfit twice. The original music is by Grant Olding, he who gave us the tunes in One Man Two Guvnors, and created the stunning Drunk with Drew McOnie. Heading the cast you have Pixie Lott, with three number one singles under her belt, nominated for four BRIT awards, quarter finalist on Strictly Come Dancing, and having sold 1.6 million albums worldwide. What could possibly go wrong?
I’ll tell you. A complete lack of energy, and a total lack of drama. It’s almost paralysingly dull. Mrs C had to check Wikipedia when we got home in order to verify what kind of story it’s meant to be – and the answer seemed to be romantic comedy. Well there’s not a lot of romance, and even less comedy. I’ve hardly ever seen such a packed audience (and believe me the Curve Theatre was absolutely packed) react so quietly to a play. And it’s not that “I could hear a pin drop” type of intense quietness; it’s the aghast quietness that says “I can’t believe I paid £38 to see something so totally bland”. It’s almost as though after the first couple of scenes we had united in a communal “glazing over” of all our senses. I think I gave a slight chuckle three times in the entire show. You could tell the lines that were meant to get laughs, as the cast had built in useful pauses in the proceedings to deal with them. However, they were met with silence. I almost wondered if we had gone on a work to rule and weren’t going to react to any of the lines until our demands for free half-time ice-creams had been met. Desultory applause at the interval and curtain call told its own story. Yes, there were of course some whoops for Miss Lott, but they were clearly out of appreciation for her back catalogue rather than anything to do with her performance.
Fair’s fair – Pixie Lott absolutely looks the part. She’s radiant, she’s stylish; you’d have to be a very hard-hearted chap not to get some warmth in your soul from looking at her. In the course of the show she sings three songs: Grant Olding’s Hold Up My Dying Day which I thought was a very classy number, Oklahoma’s People will say we’re in love which just seems The Wrong Song from The Wrong Show at The Wrong Time, and Henry Mancini’s Moon River, in a version so laid back that it can barely stand upright. This is patently not a musical – it’s a play with music. I thought it was very revealing that a packed house watching Pixie Lott perform three songs on stage only resulted in one very half-hearted round of applause – for Moon River, when you could sense the audience guiltily relent into it as though it were a kind of obligation. With looks like that she doesn’t have to be the world’s finest actor but I couldn’t help but feel that she hadn’t really got into the part at all yet. It felt much more like she was doing a vocal impersonation of Audrey Hepburn – or, actually, to me it sounded more like she was channelling her inner Zsa Zsa Gabor, darrrlink.
Matt Barber played Holly’s neighbour Fred – although that isn’t his name – and again I didn’t really get a full impression about how he actually felt about Holly. The character’s ambiguous sexuality was quite subtly played out in many scenes, with his more than usual delight at meeting Jose, his looking twice at the sailors home on leave and the initial suggestion that Doc was stalking him for a very different purpose. But I couldn’t work out if that made him Holly’s Gay Best Friend or what, really. Many of the other characters succeeded in featuring somewhere on the irritating scale, with some rather over the top performances; maybe they were just trying to compensate for the overwhelming dullness of the whole thing by goofying-up these minor characters. Mrs C’s main criticism of the show – during the parts where she stayed awake – was that a lot of the acting was very shouty – one of her pet hates. Only Robert Calvert as Doc – Holly’s rather sad and confused husband from the early days – struck me as getting the tone of his character right. They say never work with animals – couldn’t agree less. The cat was one of the best things about this show.
I really wanted to enjoy it; I so wanted to enjoy it. But in the first few scenes it offers the audience nothing to latch on to that can carry them through the rest of the play. No intrigue; no humour; no suspense; no characters with whom you can identify or admire. It ends up being two and a half hours (or more) of supreme irrelevance. I couldn’t wait for it to end.