Edinburgh Fringe 2011
York’s PaperTape Theatre emphasise visual and verbal flair over narrative coherence in an ambitious collision of a brace of F Scott Fitzgerald’s less-celebrated short stories. Strong performances and well-turned comic dialogue, along with an interesting visual device, cannot compensate for an inherent shallowness of plot, though they come close…
Adaptation is a tricky business. One has to balance fidelity to the original material with the demands of a different medium. Too faithful and there seems little point in having made the effort to adapt, too cavalier and all trace of the source can disappear. York-based company PaperTape have endeavoured to overcome this conundrum by highlighting the artifice of their adaptation, and conflation, of two Scott Fitzgerald short stories, setting it on the soundstage of a 1920s film lot. It’s a decision that both gives “Diamond Dick” its unique charm and highlights the weakness of Fitzgerald’s writing, particularly when it comes to plot.
Writer-director Laura Ward-Nokes has opted for a simple, monochrome set reminiscent of the jazz age, going so far as to include the actors into her colour scheme. Thus the cast are dressed in black and white and caked in grey face-paint. The effect is quite startling at first, but soon appears quite normal as we are taken from scene to scene and in-between during the shooting of the film “Diamond Dick”. Actors gossip and bitch between the scenes, which jump backwards and forwards through the narrative arc of the story, while director Miss Farrelly (also played by Ward-Nokes) struggles to maintain control of her project, particularly in the face of jaded diva Miss Lane (a suitably bitchy Laura Horton).
It is these scenes that provide the entertainment value of “Diamond Dick”, especially when contrasting the characters of the actors with those of the parts they play in the film: grouchy diva becomes squeaky ingénue, a leading man has a sweat problem, while the older actress is a lush playing a teetotaller. If these characters were allowed to grow beyond their thumbnail sketches, it’s possible this might have been a more successful play. However, the adaptation demands that we return to Fitzgerald’s hole-ridden plots, which no amount of grey face paint can cover.
Wealthy young thing Diane Dickey, formerly known as “Diamond”, has returned from the Great War a changed woman, no longer the sparky socialite of old. Both she and her younger brother, Jacob, have loved and lost – only to find that her former beau, Charlie, has taken up with his former belle, rising
Sadly, the confusion that arises from this central plot seems to affect its superior setting. The audience is acknowledged by the performers at the start and end of the play: we appear to be on some kind of studio tour, but exactly what we are doing there is never discussed. Likewise, the sudden ending of the “Diamond Dick” story (essential if we aren’t to consider its innate silliness) is followed by the audience being unceremoniously herded out of the theatre. Despite the charm of the inter-scene moments, nothing has actually happened by the time “filming” is over: we have been treated to a device and little more.
This is a pity, as there is a lot to recommend within “Diamond Dick”. Ward-Nokes clearly has a good ear for comic dialogue when left to her own devices and the central performances by Horton and Lauren Oliver as Diane have a nervous energy redolent of the time. There were hints of themes such as memory and loss, and even the suggestion of a transgressive relationship between brother and sister, but they were never really developed, swamped as they were by the need to remain faithful to the drunken logic of Fitzgerald’s plots. In all, a valiant attempt, with genuine talent on show, but perhaps next time PaperTape would be better advised to avoid the tightrope of adaptation and strike out with a new act of their own.