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A CurtainUp London Review
Beautiful and Damned
by Katherine Lawson
Answer: Turn it into a glittering West End musical! Go on. Throw in some high kicks, some flappers and lots of bad wigs and no one will notice that love really doesn't conquer all.
This seems to have been the questionable logic of Les Reed and Roger Cook when writing their new show Beautiful and Damned.
The play opens in the Deep South, where the population have a good line in pursed lips and raised eyebrows. Zelda does not fit in. She is provocative, flirtatious and charming. Into this world stumbles the glamorous young writer, Scott. Needless to say, he wins Zelda's heart and the play unfolds to chart the rise and fall of one of America's most infamous couples. We take in Alabama, New York and Europe as the Fitzgeralds' marriage slowly self destructs and Zelda and Scott turn from enchanting and in love to bitter, jealous and fiercely competitive.
The problem that Beautiful and Damned never quite overcomes is that every character is a stereotype. The play begins and ends with Zelda in the asylum where she waits hopelessly for Scott. Through flashback we see her put down, repressed and finally destroyed by her husband but Kit Hesketh Harvey's script never quite musters the strength to make Scott the monster he needs to be. It wants to side with Zelda but can't quite bring itself to make Scott a baddie. As a result we are left hanging in the middle, wondering why Zelda has become quite so crazed over such a non entity.
The script is crammed with stereotypes and cliché, the epitome of this being Zelda's bizarre dance mistress who loiters, silent and intimidating before spitting out "one can either be a mother or a dancer - one cannot be both". The references to Fitzgerald's work appear as horribly self conscious reminders of who we're watching. Ernest Hemingway alone manages to be something other than just a function and he's the only character who really captures any sense of danger, menace or real dissolution. Les Reed and Roger Cook, who conceived the show and wrote the music and words, have a good track record: Les Reed wrote "It's not Unusual" and "Delilah" and Roger Cook has won several Ivor Novello awards. Here, however, they just don't capture their previous magic. Charles Dobson, who funded the show, claims that he heard the music for Beautiful and Damned and "in nanoseconds he was hooked" - to be honest it's hard to understand why. Beautiful and Damned is full of long, mundane love songs with terrible, clumsy rhymes. The only relief comes from the two big company numbers - "Beautiful and Damned" and "Living Well's the Only Way" - which pump a little life into the show.
Director and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood never really gets his teeth into a potentially fascinating setting and subject matter. The Roaring Twenties, complete with orgies and drug habits, come across as nothing more than jolly good larks. The chorus happily chop up cocaine in time to the music and tap dance their way from sexual partner to sexual partner and somehow turn complete dissolution into good clean fun. As the orgy reaches its climax (excuse the pun) a large, unattractive painting of naked men and women cavorting is clumsily lowered onto the stage - in case we hadn't realised what was happening. Christopher Wood's set is clearly designed to emphasise period over place but the oppressive and cumbersome sliding art deco screens merely underline the feeling of the whole show - laboured.
I did feel for the cast, who were clearly giving it their all. Helen Anker gives a good if conventional account of her character's journey from bright young belle to lunatic, but Zelda still lacks oomph. Michael Praed seems preoccupied with being handsome and we never really learn what draws them together. The best moments come from Heather Douglas as Lois and David Burt as Hemingway, who both perform with a venomous relish which eludes the rest of the cast.