Britten in Brooklyn at Wilton’s Music Hall
What happens when you put up a house full of eccentric writers and artists, all conscientiously objecting to the European war in the 1940s? A feast of melancholic alcoholism tinged with hilarious witticisms, of course.
Wilton’s Music Hall, with its bare brick walls and derelict corners, provides the perfect setting for Zoe Lewis’s captivating new production: the true story of Benjamin Britten (Ryan Sampson), an exiled British composer and conscientious objector who moves to a dilapidated townhouse in New York, created as an artist’s haven by his closest friend, the poet W.H. Auden (John Hollingworth).
Amidst the fun and games of a house full of eccentrics – foremost of which are alcoholic novelist Carson McCullers (Ruby Bentall), and theatrical stripper and burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee (Sadie Frost) – the play follows the changing dynamics of the residents as tensions rise following news of the war’s increasing reach. The constant partying lifestyle soon places pressure on Britten who, despite his role as a conscientious objector, feels weighed down by the guilt of leaving his family behind. It is not long before Britten and Gypsy fall at odds with Auden, who holds onto his belief of war being the death of artistry. After a series of arguments and philosophical conundrums the finale all comes to a head with the arrival of a letter, delivered by a military man, John (David Burnett) demanding Britten’s return home.
Britten in Brooklyn provides a delight of quirky, funny writing with strong performances and clever pacing. Standout performances come from Hollingworth, who perfectly captures the sensitive and melancholic plight of Auden, while Sampson as the titular lead, though edged with a nervous disposition, perhaps gives a little too much gumption for a man that was considered a shy and withdrawn individual.
Director Oli Rose makes fantastic use of the three-tiered set, perfectly envisioning and matching a disordered artist’s life with both the chestnut grand piano and bathtub that are used to great effect throughout the performance. It is a crying shame that the original building on Middagh Street no longer exists, for it would surely be a tourist attraction today, but it is heartening to see that Wilton’s Music Hall can still recreate the essence of these artistic heavyweights.
Britten in Brooklyn is at Wilton’s Music Hall from 31st August until 17th September 2016. Book your tickets here.